Why I turned down a weekly newspaper column

David Bullard examines the reasons he just couldn't get himself to take up the offer, flattering as it was

The official newspaper circulation figures for the last quarter of 2012 were released recently and they make dismal reading, particularly when compared with readership figures for the same quarter last year.

Anybody suggesting that there is hope for the future of the newspaper industry is clearly living in cloud cuckoo land. Which isn't to say that newspapers are about to become extinct in South Africa. They will continue to be bought by people who can't afford laptops and iPads and therein lies the real problem.  A newspaper relies on advertising to survive and if your product reaches an audience with very little disposable income then what is the point of a company taking expensive space to advertise a product that nobody can afford?

Desperate times for newspaper editors call for desperate measures so I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised when the editor of the City Press contacted me recently and asked if I would be interested in contributing a weekly column on their opinion pages. Very few people buy a newspaper to read news that is already old by the time it has made it onto a newspaper page so, if a newspaper is to survive, there is bound to be more emphasis on the entertainment content and comment section of a newspaper, particularly if you can build a loyal readership who return every week to read their favourite writers.

For example, I look forward every Saturday to my FT Weekend, mainly because of the columnists. The same applies to The Spectator and a week without Rod Liddle, Hugo Rifkind, James Delingpole and Martin Vander Weyer is unthinkable.

I have to admit that I was rather flattered to be invited to write a regular column for the City Press and my initial reaction was to say yes. It would be one in the eye for the Sunday Times and would annoy all those minor league columnists and faux academics who had whooped with delight when the Sunday Times decided to axe the Out to Lunch column five years ago. But fortunately I came to my senses and decided that a regular column in the City Press, or indeed any newspaper is exactly what I don't need.

I have every reason to believe that the Out to Lunch column became one of the best read columns in the country during its 14 year life span. I still get approached at airports by people who tell me they stopped buying the Sunday Times the day I was sacked which suggests that the Out to Lunch brand value has been rather more resilient than the Sunday Times brand value.

It also goes some way to explaining why the editor of a rival Sunday newspaper would be quite happy to have South Africa's best loved "unreconstructed racist" writing for her. She knows that controversy helps sell newspapers. The Sunday Times also knew that which is why the space next to the Out to Lunch column was some of the most expensive advertising real estate in the paper.

I derived enormous pleasure from writing the Out to Lunch column for most of my fourteen years at the Sunday Times but I only realised rather late in the day that you can be too successful as a columnist and that can be the cause of your downfall. Having accused the Sunday Times in an article in Empire magazine of "creeping mediocrity" I started to experience some frostiness from management. The then editor, Mondli Makhanya, told me that I had insulted the entire newsroom with my mediocrity comment and that I should publicly apologise. So I sought out two of my black colleagues and told them that I believed I needed to apologise for what I had written. Their response was a hollow laugh together with a comment along the lines of "thank heavens someone has the balls to tell the truth".

I relayed the conversation back to Makhanya and told him that I would be happy to apologise but that I suspected he would have egg all over his face if I did. This didn't please him and the knives came out.

The attendant fame (or notoriety) that goes with a column like Out to Lunch is something of a double edged sword. When you're among admirers it's great but there's also the baying mob to contend with. My hate mail bag gave me a lot of pleasure over the years but that was when knew I had an editor who would defend what I had written.

But now the rules of journalism have changed forever and you can be sacked retrospectively for something you wrote and your editor published. That really doesn't work for me. If I'm expected to put my neck on a block every week to drive up readership then the least I expect in return is editorial support.

Then there's the freedom of expression argument. I believe that freedom of expression is non-negotiable and should apply to all. There are perfectly adequate laws to deal with defamation and hate speech. Sadly this view is not shared by people like Zapiro and Max du Preez who believe that freedom of expression should be restricted to people of whom they personally approve. To write a regular column for the City Press would be to re-enter their toxic world and I'm not sure I can really be bothered at my age.

However, the real reason I simply can't bring myself to ever write a column for a newspaper again comes down to a simple lack of passion. I no longer believe newspapers have a future, I don't believe they reach the audience I want to talk to and I don't believe they are free of political influence. If I upset the ANC on the pages of a newspaper I do so at my peril.

If you can't write with passion or conviction and if you dread every weekly deadline a column becomes a chore that you come to resent and that comes across in the writing. I never got as far as talking about money with the City Press but when I realised that not even R50000 a month would tempt me I knew the passion had gone completely. And it was a curiously liberating feeling.

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