The community’s mouthpiece lives on

Athlone News has grown from a four-page supplement 30 years ago to a flagship publication reaching 56 000 homes weekly.

When I was growing up, I was an avid reader of my community newspaper. My favourite feature was the lyrics of popular songs printed on the entertainment pages each week. Many people love the deeply considered, caring advice offered by Help at Hand columnist Carin-Lee Masters. I’ve also been told that our consumer column, Off My Trolley, is a favourite. Others have an unshakeable trust and take comfort in the work of longstanding reporter Hazel Allies-Husselman. The truth is, there’s something for everyone, and each reader has his or her favourite.

I was in high school when I decided I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, and as my dad – a school principal at the time – had a good relationship with the community papers, he invited a reporter to talk to me about what was required to hack it in the field of news writing. And that, as they say, truly is history.

In 2001, I joined the team at CCN on contract, and a month later, was appointed permanently as a reporter on Athlone News where I worked for two years. After working in a number of different roles, I was appointed editor in December 2007. It has been a role that has been both incredibly challenging, but also immensely fulfilling. And while we sometimes may feel like we’re on a hamster wheel, churning out news stories week after week, the publication of a souvenir edition, gives us the opportunity to reflect on what has come before, allowing us to lay the foundation for what lies ahead.

While Athlone News now has 15 sister titles, which cover most of Cape Town as well as seven Boland towns, in its early days it was part of a stable of only four papers, owned by the then Argus Group.

With the development of Mitchell’s Plain well under way by then, the Plainsman started in 1979 as a supplement in the Cape Herald, in an effort to serve the people being moved to what was referred to as “the instant coloured city”.

But by 1985, the Cape Herald’s circulation and advertising revenue started dropping, and the Athlone Shopper and Southern Shopper – four-page supplements each – were introduced in a bid to boost revenue.

The following year, however, the Cape Herald was closed, a move which opened the way for the launch of Cape Community Newspapers and the establishment of Athlone News and Southern Mail as fully-fledged community newspapers, which were published twice a month. Their first editions were published on April 2, 1986, followed by the launch of the now defunct Northern Echo.

These community newspapers, delivered free to people’s homes, soon became trusted sources of news, well supported by both their readers and advertisers.

So well supported were they, in fact, that when Athlone News and its then 12 sister papers distributed 1.6 million voting forms calling on readers to vote for or against South Africa’s 2004 Olympic Bid in a straw poll in June 1997, more than 32 000 readers responded, with 76 percent indicating they were not in favour of the bid.

Two months later, however, Athlone News, Southern Mail and another CCN title, Helderberg Sun, found themselves at the centre of legal action relating to restraint of publication agreements which had been put in place when the Argus Group and Caxton had been part of the same controlling company, which resulted in Athlone News and Southern Mail ceasing publication for two weeks and Helderberg Sun for three years.

But the case was eventually settled and publication was allowed to resume.

The history contained in this piece was collected from notes written on bits of paper, memos and interdepartmental faxes. But, by including these anecdotes here, we commit them to the annals of history, just as we, through this souvenir edition, hope to add to history the voices of those who have shared their stories with us.

* Chantel Erfort is editor of Cape Community Newspapers. Her predecessors were David Hill (1997 to 2007) and Herman Arendse (1986 to 1997).