The end of an era

2010-07-23 00:00

THE announcement that Media24 has signed an agreement to buy the remaining 50% shares in The Natal Witness Printing and Publishing Company, the holding company of The Witness, marks the end of an era when family ownership was a hallmark of the newspaper.

The Craib family has controlled the newspaper since 1942, when they bought it from the Davis family who owned it for 87 years and have continued as minority shareholders, and who are still represented on the board by Simon Francis.

The Craib connection with the newspaper goes back over a hundred years to the early 1900s when James Craib was employed by The Natal Witness to report on the evening sittings of the old Natal Parliament prior to Union in 1910. At the time, he was pursuing accountancy studies which he completed in England. He returned to South Africa in 1911 and subsequently set up his own practice in Pietermaritzburg. He audited The Natal Witness and was later appointed company accountant and elected to the board in 1927. Craib also acted as managing director in the absence of Philip Davis, whose family had printed and published the newspaper since 1852  — six years after its founding by owner-editor David Dale Buchanan.

In 1939, Philip Davis resigned as managing director and the newspaper was owned by a small group of shareholders, one of whom was James Craib. In 1942, he became the majority shareholder and thus, according to the official history of the newspaper, Bearing Witness by Simon Haw, began “a new era in the history of The Natal Witness, namely the emergence of another durable dynasty — the Craib family — in the long history of the newspaper.”.

James Craib’s son Desmond, interviewed in 1996, pointed out that The Natal Witness was “actually owned by two families”. He explained that the Craib family had the majority share while the smaller portion was held by the Davis family.

When James Craib bought the majority share, Desmond was “up north”, fighting in World War 2.

During the war he served as an infantry platoon commander and intelligence officer with the 1st South African Division in East Africa and the Western Desert, where he was mentioned twice in dispatches. He went on to command an armoured squadron of the Special Service Battalion in the 6th South African Division in Italy, where he was awarded the Military Cross. He was wounded south of Florence but returned to the regiment during the winter campaign in the Apennines.

Desmond Craib had no interest in joining the family business and when victory was achieved in Europe the way seemed clear for Craib to set about fulfilling his dream of joining the Colonial Service. But that dream was postponed when his elder brother Alistair, a South African Air Force instructor, was killed during a night-flying exercise in Bloemfontein. Craib’s parents were devastated and he felt unable to leave them alone in their grief and, putting the Colonial Service on hold, went to work for his father.

Craib remained at The Natal Witness for a year-and-a-half before finally joining the Colonial Service in Kenya. However, in 1949, James Craib’s health began to fail and he told his son that he faced the choice of selling the Witness unless Desmond returned to take it over. “I decided to come back and give it a go,” recalled Craib. “It was simply too good an opportunity to miss.”

In 1949, Craib joined the board.

Despite diminishing health, James Craib lived for another 15 years and remained a force to be reckoned with, keeping a tight rein on the finances of the business.

The Natal Witness that Craib joined for the second time in 1949 was a very small organisation. “It had a small printing department with totally antiquated machinery and the newspaper was equally antiquated,” said Craib.

In 1953, Craib tapped into the lucrative Witwatersrand market by opening a sales office in Johannesburg to canvass work for the printing division and to bring in advertising revenue for the newspaper.

In Bearing Witness, Haw notes that “as the fifties drew to a close it was increasingly James Craib’s son Desmond who took all the important managerial decisions”.

Craib set about improving the newspaper, bringing in new technology and boosting the quality of its journalism. He also oversaw the reduction of the The Natal Witness from four daily editions to one. Haw describes this move “as one of the most significant decisions taken, as it meant the editorial staff could now concentrate all their efforts on one morning paper, with positive effects on circulation and costs”.

Craib later admitted that “it’s a very difficult thing working for your father”. His first-hand experience of such a working relationship saw Craib retire in 1984 at the age of 65 in order to clear the way for his own son, Stuart, to become managing director of the business. In 1992, Desmond Craib stood down as chairman of the Natal Witness Printing and Publishing Company and was replaced by his son.

Haw says Desmond Craib, who died in 2006, played a pivotal role in the 160-year history of The Witness. “When he took over The Natal Witness it was not in a particularly strong position, it had become quite a parochial newspaper. He oversaw a period of considerable growth and played a central role in growing the newspaper and in growing its prestige. It was a very successful period for the newspaper.”

Stuart Craib continued “growing The Witness” but found expansion 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.”

The logical move was to form a partnership and in 2000, Media24 acquired a 50% stake in the company.

“We could have continued as an independent newspaper,” says Craib, “but if we had, we would have become a much smaller paper. The decision to link with a major media player gave us the financial muscle to keepThe Witness the respected newspaper it has always been.”

The most visible impact of the partnership was the purchasing of a new printing press and the relocation of The Witness editorial and advertising staff from Langalibalele Street to a new building on The Witness premises in Willowton which was built to house the new press and the entire staff complement.

“Dad told me he felt that with the sale of the initial 50% shareholding he was dropping the baton his father had passed on to him,” recalls Craib. “But when he saw the new press and the expansion that came with the deal he was happy and convinced that 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.”

It also gave The Witness the capacity to enter into a very successful partnership with the Ilanga newspaper, with whom The Witness has a profit share agreement. “They employ the journalists but the Witness does the commercial and logistical aspects on a profit-share basis,” says Craib. “This includes advertising sales, administration, printing and distribution.”

“With Media24 input we were able to expand further and we joined forces with the Fever Group, which has become a big community newspaper group spreading from the Eastern Cape to Zululand.”

Craib says the Media24 takeover of The Witness is unlikely to have an impact on Witness readers. “Media24 wants the change to be as seamless as possible,” he says. “And these changes are not to the newspaper but to the backroom of the business.”

For the foreseeable future, there will be no change to the company structure and Craib will continue as chairman of the company. The Media24 takeover had been envisaged in the initial sale of 50% shareholding, says Craib, and the last few years have seen The Witness become part of the Media24 IT platforms. “Being a 100% wholly owned subsidiary would make it much easier for The Witness to be brought fully into the Media24 national structures — with the benefits of the economies of scale which this would bring.”

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