And this week's editor of the Sunday Times is....

David Bullard on the odd goings on at the troubled newspaper group

Last June I offered some unasked for advice to incoming Avusa CEO Colin Cary on what he needed to do to perform a Lazarus like revival of the highly troubled newspaper group (see here). Either Cary failed to fully understand my clear instructions or he thought he knew better. Whatever the reason he departed suddenly a few weeks ago from what has now been nostalgically renamed Times Media Group, according to some insiders after a troubled relationship with dealmaker Andrew Bonamour.

Mr Bonamour is now the captain of the Titanically ill-fated vessel and is obviously hoping to make the best of things, despite a lack of knowledge of the intricacies and intrigues of the newspaper industry. Mr Cary, I understand, is wealthy enough in his own right not to need all the stress of running an ailing newspaper business although he must have enjoyed an interesting few months.

This past week it was all change at the group's flagship newspaper, the once mighty Sunday Times. Poor Ray Hartley, the puppet editor who took over from Mondli Makhanya when he was sacked and kicked upstairs (surely promoted? Ed), is to depart after only two years at the helm. Ray is a delightful chap socially and a fine political journalist and I had high hopes for him when he took the reins and expressed my support in print.

Sadly Ray isn't the brightest bulb in the chandelier and spent rather too much time on Talk Radio 702 of a Monday morning explaining why his newspaper had managed to get a story arse about face the previous day. A paper like the Sunday Times needs an editor with what is known as "gravitas" and Ray wasn't that editor. So he has been booted but it is a booting wrapped in cotton wool and he will spend two months on a paid sabbatical (presumably writing a fond memoir) and return to swell the ranks of an already bloated management to do....who knows what?

The new editor of the Sunday Times is Phylicia Oppelt, the orthodontically challenged former editor of The Times and a good buddy of the company's "eminence grease" Mike (Mr Teflon) Robertson. I once referred to Phylicia as "the Tracy Chapman of prose" in the days when we both wrote columns for the Sunday Times because of the gloomy, struggle cred subject matter of her columns.

So I doubt she'll be phoning me inviting me to return to the fold to boost the readership among the LSM 10's. Oh, I forgot to mention that Ms Oppelt is the first woman to edit the Sunday Times and is, in addition, a previously disadvantaged person so tick two boxes on the PC approval sheet.

Those of you who, like me, take a very real interest in the death throes of the print media can't have failed to notice some very rum goings on in the house of Times Media. Firstly there was the sudden departure of über editor Mondli Makhanya last year after a management committee meeting. I received an excited call from my source telling me that Makhanya had tendered his resignation, ostensibly to write a book about Polokwane (queue here please for the movie rights). I Tweeted this info and there was no reaction from the hacks.

Considering the fact that one of the country's most prominent editors and the chairman of SANEF had given up an astronomical salary to take his chances in the bestseller stakes one might have thought there would have been more tributes paid but there seems to be a vow of omerta among his fellow editors. Whatever the real reason for Makhanya's sudden and unexpected resignation it's not for us to know. My guess is that Makhanya was either too expensive or embarrassed his employer in some way and was asked for his resignation to play things down. I could be wrong of course but don't you find it odd that the resignation of a man who edited the Sunday Times for so many years should pass uncommented, particularly by rival newspaper groups?

Talking to those who are clinging to the wreckage of the Sunday Times, I'm told that it is not a happy ship and it's not difficult to see why. The years of appalling mismanagement are taking their toll and the newspaper finds itself losing both readers and credibility.

The problem is that it won't acknowledge the fact. The official sales and circulation figures still claim that Sunday Times' circulation has barely changed in six years, with the only noticeable downward blip after the departure of one of their star columnists. If indeed this is true it runs contrary to the global trend in the industry.

Now I would hate to suggest that the Sunday Times are indulging in what Peter Bruce referred to in this week's column as "the dark arts of circulation manipulation" (apparently one of the life skills of a successful editor) but I do think it's time for a proper audit of the ST's claimed figures by a reputable auditing firm.

Two years ago I received a call from an AVUSA insider who wanted to meet with me. I didn't know this person but I agreed to meet at my home. My informant told me that I would hear disturbing information and agreed to me recording the conversation. She/he proceeded to make a series of eye-popping allegations. I asked my informant why she/he hadn't reported this to a higher authority and received the reply that she/he feared retaliation from management. I then asked my informant if she/he would sign a sworn affidavit if we could guarantee anonymity and received a reply in the affirmative.

Knowing that the story would be rejected as "sour grapes" by other newspaper editors I went to an organisation called Media Monitoring Africa; an organisation that claims to address Media Ethics as one of its key three areas. I invited the director William Bird to my home and played him the relevant excerpts from a fifty minute interview. He was deeply shocked but has, thus far, done nothing in nearly two years. Too hot to handle maybe? Never mind William, you still have two other key areas to concentrate on.

While this news may be new to you in print, I went into in some detail when I addressed the Cape Town Press Club last year. Not surprisingly, the speech went unreported.

Strange things are happening at our newspapers; the sort of things that would make the front page of a newspaper if they happened anywhere else. Surely "circulation manipulation" amounts to deception, if not fraud, because it misleads advertisers into thinking they are reaching a far greater or more influential paying audience than they actually are. The legal repercussions, not to mention the potential reputational damage would be enormous. If I were Mr Bonamour I would be keen to lay that ghost as soon as possible.

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