Ink in his veins

2012-06-22 00:00

“THROUGHOUT school I was definite on one thing: I would never work for my father.” Well, things didn’t quite work out like that for Stuart Craib, who is standing down as executive chairperson of the Natal Witness and Publishing Company following its merger with Media24.

The merger brings to an end an era when family ownership was a hallmark of the company, of which The Witness newspaper is the most public face. The Craib family has been in charge since 1942, when James Craib, Stuart’s grandfather, became the majority shareholder. Coincidentally, Stuart’s father, Desmond, hadn’t originally intended to work for his father either, and only took up the reins when his younger brother was killed in a flying accident.

Interviewed in 1996, the 150th anniversary year of The Witness, Desmond Craib said it was “a very difficult thing to work for your father”, especially, in his case, for a father who only retired when he died at the age of 80. “A young man can’t be kept forever working for his father.” With this in mind, Desmond Craib retired at 65 to clear the way for his son Stuart to become managing director in 1984 and he stood down as chairperson in 1992.

But there were still a few cul-de-sacs to be explored by young Stuart before filial loyalty won the day. Born in 1950 and educated at Cowan House and Michaelhouse, Stuart then studied engineering, “which is where aptitude tests indicated I should go”. At the end of a four-year degree, Stuart wasn’t entirely certain that this was where his vocation lay. “So I went to Cambridge and did an economics degree.”

When Stuart returned from the UK, he worked for Roberts Construction in order to pay back the bursary that financed his studies. “Then, in 1976, the Soweto riots hit and engineering disintegrated.” But by then Craib knew an engineering career wasn’t for him. “I had been with Roberts for two years and during that time I realised I didn’t really want to stay. One day, I found myself sitting on a half-finished bridge in Lichtenburg and decided that working for my father was maybe not such a bad thing after all.”

Joining the family business

Stuart already had some idea of what went on at The Witness. Prior to going to Cambridge, where the term began in September, he had spent seven months at the company. “I worked in various departments, as reporter and photographer on the newspaper, and as machine-minder and book-binder in the book publishing plant. So I had an idea what it was all about.”

When Stuart finally decided to come in from the cold, he was seconded for a year to the Daily News in Durban as assistant to the assistant general manager “to get an idea of a bigger newspaper and the newspaper industry”. He then returned to The Witness as the assistant to the general manager, Bill Vorster, in 1977.

When Stuart became managing director in 1984 it was already 10 years into the editorship of Richard Steyn, a former lawyer. The two had crossed paths before in the early seventies when Stuart, then a student, saw his name make the front page of The Witness. He had been at a bull’s party in Durban. Things got raucous, the police were called and Stuart and several others found themselves facing charges of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. It was agreed they would pay an admission of guilt fine and that would be that. No criminal record. But in court it turned out the agreement had not been honoured. However, Stuart’s lawyer spotted this and made sure the original agreement stood. The lawyer? Richard Steyn.

The late Peter Robinson, a journalist on The Witness, credited Steyn with transforming the newspaper “from a provincial journal to a newspaper with an international reputation”. In 1990, Steyn was head-hunted by the Star in Johannesburg. In 1994, he resigned, unwilling to accept the fettering of his editorial freedom. Something he had never experienced at The Witness.

“I had great respect for Richard,” says Stuart. “I would never try to tell him what to do. Management should not tread on editorial toes at all.”

After Steyn, and under Stuart’s watch, The Witness has been edited successively by David Willers, John Conyngham, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya and now, Angela Quintal.

Leaving editorial to get on with their job, Stuart was kept busy developing the business. Looking back at significant moments, he recalls the move to lithography printing in 1980, when the company bought premises in Willowton Road to house a new press. “That was a substantial investment and resulted in us having one of the best presses in the country, with facilities for colour, something not all the big newspaper groups had.”

Stuart’s own marriage, to Leigh Bradford, followed in 1985. Of their three children, Tim, the eldest, is an electrical engineer, while Derryn and Andrew are at university.

The early eighties also saw The Witness invest in M-Net. “People say now that it was ‘money for jam’,” says Stuart, “but back then there was considerable risk. How were we going to make people pay for TV when they could already get it for free?”

Independent no more

M-Net proved a huge success, developing further with MIH Holdings and M-Cell, and it was during this time that the links were forged that would ultimately lead to the Media24 merger. “Through M-Net, a strong relationship developed between Ton Vosloo and Koos Bekker of Naspers, my father and myself,” says Stuart.

“We were always very proud of our independence, but in the latter half of the nineties, it was becoming clear that to carry on as a print newspaper only was not the road to future growth,” says Stuart. “We saw other independents being absorbed by the larger newspaper groups and while we might have survived it would probably have been as a small-town newspaper. In order to grow, we needed more muscle.”

Growth was limited by the capacity of the printing press. “The existing press could really only print The Witness,” he says. “It didn’t have the capacity to do much else.

“I did some strategic thinking, looked at the various options, and decided we needed to link up with one of the major groups. Given our relationship, there was no doubt in our minds who we would want that to be as Naspers was by far the most forward thinking in terms of getting into the digital age — which I see as the only way forward — and I’ve always had respect for Koos Bekker’s entrepreneurship. Also, if we had gone in with one of the other newspaper groups we would have had competing products. It was a good fit for them and us.”

And so, in 2000, Media24 acquired a 50% stake in the company. At the same time, an agreement was made to print, manage and distribute the Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga, further justifying the need for a new printing press.

The most visible impact of the partnership with Media24 was the purchase of a new press and the relocation of The Witness editorial and advertising staff from Langalibalele Street to a new building in Willowton, built to house the new press and the entire staff complement.

In a 2010 interview, Stuart recalled how his father Desmond had told him how “he felt that with the sale of the initial 50% shareholding he was dropping the baton his father had passed on to him. But when he saw the new press and the expansion that came with the deal he was happy and convinced it was the right thing to have done. The new press gave an extra leg to the business. We could print other newspaper titles and advertisement inserts for clients.”

The decision to sell the remaining 50% came about when it was clear that the next generation of Craibs was bent on pursuing other interests.

The future is digital

Asked about the future of newspapers, Stuart says that while he believes there will always be room for them, “a paid-for print publication on its own is going to be a problem”. But as newspapers move into the digital age and their websites become an integral part of their product offering, the question remains how the Internet versions can turn a profit. There is a belief that information via the Internet must be provided free of charge, and although some newspapers now charge a website subscription, it has not proved the solution. “Digital is the future, but no one’s cracked how to make it pay,” says Stuart.

“It would be tragic if newspapers disappear. When you pick up a newspaper you maybe know what you want to read — the sport at the back or the front-page news stories — but then you open it up and there are the opinion pages and the feature pages and so much more that you wouldn’t otherwise have come across. All that must help broaden the mind. I’m worried that the new generation will be narrower in their thinking and in terms of their points of reference.”

Although Stuart has stood down as executive chairperson of The Witness, he will remain as chairperson in a non-executive capacity. But he is not retiring. “I could say I plan to play a bit more golf, which is what everyone says.” That Stuart remains chair of Intrepid Printers and Shuter and Shooter will doubtless keep him off the greens for some time, as well as off the front page.

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