Company History

The Beginning

William Ernest Fairbridge

William Ernest Fairbridge, first editor of The Herald, stands in front of the first office over 100 years ago. He published the first issue of The Mashonaland Herald and Zambesian Times, forerunner to the Rhodesia Herald, on June 27, 1891.

Zimbabwe Newspapers started in a very small way and was largely launched and overseen for its first decade by a very smart youngish man

The man behind this “press” and then founder of Zimbabwe’s newspaper industry, Zimpapers itself and, as a sideline local government in Zimbabwe, was William Ernest Fairbridge.

He was sent to “Fort Salisbury” in 1891 as an agent for the Argus company of South Africa, owners of the two largest papers in South Africa, The Argus of Cape Town and The Star of Johannesburg. His job was varied. Like all 200 Argus agents scattered around the small settlements of Southern Africa he was supposed to find interesting stories, take orders for advertisements, stationary, books and newspapers, and generally show the company flag.

Presumably the stories had to have a long shelf-life. The mail took about six weeks to reach the rail head at the southern end of Botswana and telegrams were very expensive and rather intermittent, the single-wire line still inching its way north and not reaching Fort Salisbury until the following year.

On Fairbridge’s arrival the administration of the British South Africa Company tried to ensure that the press was on its side. They lent him a hut in the actual fort, now Africa Unity Square, although after some good rains the walls of the fort had slumped to around a metre high, so it was not much use for its original purpose.

He had a bit of time on his hands after writing his dispatches and finding few of the macho types wandering around the village wanted a writing pad to be delivered at high transport costs in three months. The few bureaucrats had their paper specially delivered.

So he decided to start a newspaper after mooching around the store owned by Frank Johnson. This commander of the civilian side of Cecil Rhodes’s invasion force had not made much profit on organizing his settler column. But he cleaned up on arrival. He and two friends had brought up wagon loads of useful supplies which they sold at inflated prices to those they had led north.

And among these piles of useful items, Fairbridge found a broken cycostyle, two stylo pens (These had a tiny toothed wheel as the nib to cut small holes in a waxed sheet of paper), a couple of boxes of the waxed paper stencils and some foolscap sheets. He spent some of his Argus float on this unpromising equipment, repaired the cyclostyle, cast a new roller using glue in a German sausage tin and got to work. He had neat handwriting, and he could spell, so his “art work” was acceptable and some of the local auctioneers and shopkeepers wanted advertisements. His first issues of “The Mashonaland Herald and Zambezi Times” were printed by laying the stencil paper on top of a sheet of foolscap, applying ink to the stencil and running the roller over it. He had to make his own ink from soot and oil after the first bottles ran out. He needed an oily ink for this printing and trying to get the mixture of soot and oil right was a problem.

But for 62 weeks he produced this little newspaper, on Fridays.

Having proved his point, for he made money from the first issue, he wrote to the head office in South Africa. No one recorded what the reaction was there when a letter was opened containing the usual dispatches about interesting speeches by Dr Leander Jameson, orders for writing pads and a note announcing he had started a newspaper and would the Argus company sent him a printing press, a lot of reams of paper, a good assortment of cases of type, a pair of typesetters and a reporter or two.

One imagines a plaintive voice shouting in the offices of Francis Dormer, the head of Argus, and Thomas Sheffield, the number two: “He has done what? He wants what?” They had, as a long term plan, the half-formed idea of founding a newspaper in Mashonaland. But thought it would wait until railways, brick buildings and a telegraph line were up before even investigating further. Sheffield had in fact visited the fort in early 1891 and on his return reported that transport was hopeless; he had helped explore the Beira route.

But Fairbridge was lucky. That same year a senior Star journalist had taken leave and come to Mashonaland to write a book. C. E. Finlason wanted to show the other side after reading about the incredible journey of Lord Randolf Churchill (father of Winston) who travelled with cooks, valets, and every conceivable comfort in his wagon train, including a kitchen stove and a piano (although that was dumped at the side of the road). Obviously while in Harare, and his humorous description of the early days of Zimbabwe’s future capital are still highly amusing and shed a poor light on most settler adventurers, he visited the town’s only journalist.

His report back in Johannesburg must have been good. Despite Fairbridge grossly exceeding instructions he got his press, paper, type and staff the next year. The whole lot needed more than one ox-wagon, and one, inevitably, was delayed. Even with GPS and cellphones this still happens. Trucks seemingly vanish and take weeks to arrive from a port. So with just the press, a typesetter (in those days a man), two cases of type in an advertisement font and the odd ream of paper of the wrong size he started printing a temporary “News and Advertisements” while quizzing every arrival over whether they had seen the missing wagon. A few weeks later it finally crept into town and the printed Herald was launched on its first real press.

These first proper printed Herald had big pages, but few of them. Each page was 610mm long and 460mm wide, divided into just eight columns. Over the decades pages became a little shorter with each new shift in printing technology and quite a lot narrower to make them far easier to read. Big pages had started in the 18th century when King George II started taxing newspapers by the page, so fewer and bigger pages cut the taxes, but remained after the tax was abolished for printing convenience. A sheet-fed press could only print two pages at a time, the sheet then being turned over to print the next two pages. Keeping print times low meant big pages but few of them. From the arrival of web-presses printing on both sides newspapers have become narrower, and more convenient, since it was now possible to print a lot of pages simultaneously on both sides. But it is only in recent years that newspaper owners have worked backwards from what readers want in a paper size when fixing the size of their pages.

Fairbridge was a pusher. He soon obtained the Government printing contract, and incidentally founding the commercial printing side of the business that became Natprint, and moved out of the pole and dagga building and the iron shack he started in.

In 1897 he managed to buy at a bargain price from a speculator who got his sums wrong a small brick building on the corner of Robert Mugabe Road and Mbuya Nehanda Street. This had been built by the Chamber of Mines who found it too small, sold to the neighbouring businessman Nat Arnold who thought in encroached on his own property and smelled a substantial legal settlement, but found the law was on the chamber’s side and had to sell both stands, one empty. Fairbridge bought the lot.

In 1900 he had built on the other part of the double stand what was then a very handsome double-storey office block. These two buildings, the first real Herald House, still stand, now used as shops and a commercial college. His successors eventually moved what had become a fair batch of flat-bed presses to a more utilitarian building in Mbuya Nehanda street on the other side of Robert Mugabe Road, which after the move to the second Herald House in Jason Moyo Avenue in 1931, became the transport offices of The Herald, a role they played for over a century.

Others saw his talent and he was elected first Mayor of the town in 1896, which is why he has a road named after him near Parirenyatwa Hospital. The Argus company liked him too. He was chosen as the successor of Sheffield to head the company early in the 20th century.

A variety of second-hand flat-bed presses were sent up every now and again as The Star modernized, but it was not until 1927 that The Herald finally obtained its first web press, a Cosser. This was a weird press to modern printers, being a web-fed flat-bed. It proceeded in short jumps at it stopped every 22 inches to print the next set of pages. But it was a sturdy press. It printed all Heralds up to 1949 and then worked printing The Manica Post right up into the 1980s, when it finally broke down totally. Spares cannot be found for 60-year old presses.

In 1949 the first of an eventual three rotary web-presses, the second generation webs, finally arrived at Herald House and the first section of the new and present Herald House was built. In 1931 The Herald had moved from Mbuya Nehanda Street to Jason Moyo Avenue, just across the service lane from its present home. In 1961 the 12-year old printing hall, a neighbouring building and a large new building were all incorporated into the present first four floors of Herald House, with the top three floors added in 1976.

These three, and by now very old letterpress rotary webs, were replaced by the Goss Metroliner after independence. And 30 years later we finally move to the fourth generation with the TPH Orient X-CEL.

The growth of Zimbabwe Newspapers (1980) Limited, the country’s largest media group, reflects in many ways the changes in Zimbabwe itself since independence.

Radical transformations in the early 1980s transformed a media company established and effectively controlled by South Africans into an indigenous company that was then able to build upon what it had inherited and develop further in new directions to serve people of Zimbabwe.

Zimpapers dates its origins to 1891 when the Argus Company in South Africa sent William Fairbridge north as its agent. He established the first newspaper in what is now Zimbabwe, using a makeshift cyclostyle “press” in a hut in what is now Africa Unity Square.

Over the 90 years of colonial history Argus maintained the dominance their lead had established and they built a commercially viable business. This was centred on two daily newspapers in Harare and Bulawayo, The Herald and The Chronicle, both set up in the early 1890s. In the 1930s Sunday papers, the Sunday News and The Sunday Mail, were added in the two cities, both converted from existing weeklies bankrupted by the Great Depression and bought cheaply by Argus, and a provincial paper, The Manica Post, in Mutare which was sold and bought back by Argus. A foray into Zambia during the Federal era ended after Zambian independence and two attempts to establish other dailies in Harare, the Evening Standard and The National Observer, were eventually abandoned.

The Argus connection, and especially the ability of that South African company to move second-hand presses and other technical equipment from South Africa as newspapers there outgrew presses that were still mechanically sound, helped the Zimbabwean subsidiary grow faster than it would otherwise have been able to do. In 1927 the Zimbabwean operations became a true subsidiary with the establishment of the Rhodesian Printing and Publishing Company, but Argus even when it gave up its majority shareholding still retained an effective controlling shareholding.

The RP&P stable while dominating Zimbabwean media was limited in building a truly Zimbabwean media. Almost all staff came from South Africa in the early years and imports of immigrants from Britain filled a lot of vacancies from the 1930s right up to the 1960s. Training and employment of Zimbabwean-born whites started filling senior posts from the 1960s but it was not until the 1970s that RP&P saw its first Zimbabwean-born editors and shortly afterwards its first Zimbabwean-born managing director. The same decade saw a long-delayed employment of black apprentices for skilled technical posts and black journalism cadets.

In 1980 the new Government found the major media company effectively foreign-controlled, and much of the staff culturally assimilated into that foreign company. While recognising that the newspapers were quite prepared to continue their policy of being generally supportive of the Government of the day, which was now the first majority-rule Government, there were concerns about how effectively the newspapers would be able to serve the new country.

A gift from Nigeria allowed the Government to set up the Mass Media Trust and buy out the South African interests, so ensuring that Zimbabwe Newspapers was 100 percent Zimbabwean owned. Although the trust continued buying other small parcels of shares it limited its holding to 51 percent, enough to control the company without excluding other Zimbabweans.

The changes following the change in controlling ownership were important but quite small. New editors were appointed to the three major titles: The Herald, The Chronicle and The Sunday Mail. A new board of directors was appointed. The company, with new direction, was then told develop as a Zimbabwean company. Simply changing editors ensured that the controlling vision of each newspaper was now managed by a Zimbabwean with Zimbabwean goals.

Changes occurred faster than planned. Argus guaranteed posts in South Africa for staff. An exodus of white staff created shortages but also opportunities. A fair number of exiled Zimbabwean journalists and printers returned home, Zambia providing the largest contingent, and were joined by survivors from the old African Daily News and freelancers who now came into their own. Massive training schemes and larger intakes of apprentices soon filled the gaps. A small group of South Africans, opponents of apartheid, came north to fill odd gaps.

Editorially there were significant changes in what was covered and how it was covered, but with a strong emphasis on maintaining professional standards.

By 1984 Zimpapers was able to borrow long-term funds and buy its first-ever brand new printing presses, a pair of first generation colour litho presses from Goss for Harare and Bulawayo. Phototypesetting followed in the late 1980s. These changes allowed colour printing and maintained the commercial viability of the company.

Much of the work of the 1980s and 1990s was consolidating what was there when the changes took place and building up new markets and new readerships. Two new titles, Kwayedza and uMthunywa were launched, providing weekly newspapers in national languages. At the end of the 1990s Zimpapers moved technically into the next century by commissioning its first digital production systems for editorial and advertising, allowing it to cut pre-production costs and become a lot more flexible.

The days of hyperinflation were days when survival was put first, and Zimpapers managed that feat without lowering standards. As the economy stabilised and started growing again a lot of thought was put into how the company should move forwards into the modern digital ages.

Websites were established in the early 2000s, a fairly easy undertaking since all material had been digital from the beginning of the century, but these were simply additions, rather than new markets, done because “everyone” was putting in websites rather than because of a business plan.

Serious business planning then saw bigger changes. The first was examining how Zimpapers could continue dominating its markets with the advent of greater competition and lower entry costs. Rather than move The Herald downmarket to compete with middle-market subsidised competition Zimpapers chose to segment the market, straddling it with the upmarket Herald and the tabloid H-Metro from 2009. The strategy was successful with The Herald remaining number one daily according to independent surveys and H-Metro generally racing neck-to-neck with the main two competitors.

Radio had always been a State monopoly, but that changed early in the second decade of the 21st century. Zimpapers saw its opportunity of becoming more of a content company, less worried about platforms but using all available platforms for its specialised content. It thus applied for one of the first commercial radio licences, and in 2012 was able to launch Star-FM, whose small news staff are able to draw on the resources and content from the entire group. Television is seen as the next step, although Zimpapers were one of the major start-up shareholders of the old RTV before the company was effectively nationalised in the UDI era.

This does not mean old systems are abandoned. In 2013 Zimpapers commissioned the most modern press in Zimbabwe, a four-tower full-colour third generation litho web press.

Digital publishing is likely to become the major platform within a few years as Zimbabwe continues following world trends. But this is simply seeing the continued transformation of Zimpapers from a newspaper company to a content company that seeks to use all available platforms to publish suitable packages of content. Although anyone can start a newspaper, or can open a website or can publish digitally, and these days can do so quite cheaply, what attracts readers and so attracts advertisers is the quality and quantity of the content.

A media company that has good content, whose content has been sifted for accuracy, and who has editors who can choose a selection of that content that will satisfy large groups of customers will be in a far more advantageous position than someone taking together bar talk and rumours.

With 130 years of finding content, 41 years of it within the new Zimbabwe, the time when whole generations of journalists have grown up, Zimpapers is confident it can continue to dominate its media markets as a content provider.