Johannesburg - There was a lot of excitement in Kimberley last week. The Diamond Fields Advertiser, known to its readers simply as the DFA, moved to become a once-a-week free newspaper. Many of you might mutter ‘so what’. But that would be missing the point, the DFA isn’t a normal newspaper: it’s been published with one or two notable exceptions ever since it was started on March 23, 1878. That’s nine years before The Star was started in Johannesburg.
It’s a local institution that’s given countless lucky young journalists an incalculable head start on their future careers. I’m one of them. I’ll never forget the lessons I learnt at the feet of people like Tony Ball and the late Vusi Tukakhomo or working alongside Johan du Plessis, who is today the longest-serving editor in the DFA’s 144-year history and probably the longest-serving current newspaper editor in South Africa today.
The DFA was a daily newspaper until Covid-19 hit, probably the last daily newspaper in a South African ‘city’ the size of Kimberley. It had already successfully created a digital edition and a social media presence when the country was locked down. Emerging from the stages of lockdown, it managed to resuscitate a once-a-week Friday edition, which was still paid for.
Sales were woeful, but then every newspaper’s is at the moment. So, what they’ve done is to increase the print run massively to 40 000 and then start handing them out. And that’s the point, unlike the ‘knock and drop’ advertising sheets that are such a feature of life in the more monied metropolitan suburbs, there’s actually a market in Kimberley for a free, proper newspaper. The DFA ran out of copies to meet the demand in Kimberley by midday last Friday – despite printing the equivalent of an entire five-day print run.
It’s an important model that needs to work. We need newspapers to survive, but more than anything else, we need them to be independent. When the DFA was started there was plenty of verneukery and schlenters on the diamond fields to report. There’s probably even more going on today. How better than to call it to account and keep the residents honest than through a newspaper that, in the words of the great Arthur Miller, is a community talking to itself?
The clickbait of celeb news and crash, boom, bang of catastrophes can be handled digitally, but the real parish pump stuff; the life and death – heartbeat – of a small city is captured in the print edition. That’s what the social media sites can’t hold a candle to: the hatches, matches and dispatches in the classifieds, the legals and the editor’s opinion on a matter that wouldn’t be worth a second glance 10kms outside the municipal boundary.
The irony is that many of the big metropolitan papers are already half there: free at airports and hotels. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the DFA was to show the way for a proper sustainable mass market model for newspapers and wean us off the toxic cesspits of social media and suburban WhatsApp groups?
I really hope it happens.