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Nigerian Owned Newspaper Makes South Africa Debut - 2003-10-07

South Africa has its first new daily newspaper since the end of apartheid. The Nigerian-owned ThisDay hit the streets Tuesday, after months of delays.

ThisDay is one of Nigeria's top newspapers, now moving into the South African market. The newspaper's long-awaited debut comes after more than a year of planning, several delays, and much speculation about whether it would ever actually make it to the newsstands.

Now that it has, ThisDay is unique in South Africa on several counts. It is being printed in four cities and distributed throughout the country. That makes it the only nationwide general-interest daily, although there is a business-oriented newspaper in national circulation.

But ThisDay's very existence is a landmark. It is the first mainstream daily to launch since the end of apartheid nearly 10 years ago. ThisDay chief executive John Matisson says it is time for a change.

"We think that South Africans are ready for a different kind of read," said Mr. Matisson. "The country has changed a lot in the last 10 to 15 years, and we think that the existing papers are a bit sort of tied to their pasts, not that they're apartheid papers necessarily. But we think it's time for a fresh approach, and that's what we hope to give."

In the apartheid era, South African newspapers were largely defined by their relationship with the state. Some were considered National Party mouthpieces, such as The Citizen, which in the 1970s was revealed to be secretly funded by the apartheid government.

Others, like the now-defunct Rand Daily Mail and Daily Dispatch, were known for taking courageous stands against the apartheid system.

Against that background, the head of the journalism program at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, Anton Harber, says there are two reasons why the arrival of ThisDay is significant. The first is its lack of history.

"So it's the first new venture that really doesn't carry the baggage of the past that so many of our newspapers carry," explained Mr. Harber. "And the second is because it's a Nigerian-owned paper, and it really is a sign of South Africa connecting and integrating with a continent from whom it was isolated for so long."

Expectations for the newspaper's quality are fairly high. ThisDay has hired some of South Africa's top journalists, in part because it is paying good salaries.

But chief executive Mr. Matisson says his paper's Nigerian ownership has helped him recruit journalists, precisely because it is an African project, and because they believe in the publisher's vision.

"We're African-owned, and so there's a strong feeling that people are more pro-Africa," he said. "People are exploring Africa for the first time after all the years of isolation under apartheid. Economic, business ties are expanding enormously.

"This is a Nigerian-owned project, the publisher in Nigeria was jailed under the Abacha government, so he has the same kind of commitment to editorial independence and press freedom that we do," added Mr. Matisson.

Mr. Matisson says the journalists have taken a risk in joining ThisDay because the paper is entering a hugely competitive market, and there are no guarantees it is going to survive. There are at least four other mainstream English-language daily newspapers on sale in Johannesburg, plus several tabloids. Cape Town and Durban also have multiple papers. And nationwide, newspaper circulation has been dropping for years.

The one success story is the Daily Sun, a downmarket tabloid launched last year. Its cocktail of celebrity gossip and sensationalist crime stories has proven hugely successful, and sales have gone through the roof.

The people at ThisDay are now out to prove there is room for growth at the top of the newspaper market as well.