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Another brick in the pay wall

- Andile Ndlovu

The media industry in South Africa has been sputtering along for several years. How do we prevent it from totally collapsing?

Media, journalism © Curiosity

It is inherently human to cling to hope in times of great destruction and indisposition. We turn to it when we are met with bleak prognoses on a myriad of issues. In this country, politicians even turn to optimism when governance proves wearisome, imploring us to pray for deliverance.

We tell ourselves – and each other – that we will return to what we had before. Yet, what recent times have taught us is that the ‘new normal’ or ‘going back to normal’ is a mistaken belief. 

Many industries are learning this the hard way. Journalism, and specifically South Africa’s beleaguered press, has been battered almost beyond recognition in recent years – only for Covid-19 to arrive and accelerate the pre-existing structural declines in the industry.

Like an unserviced car, the engine has been sputtering for a while and the industry has been too ponderous in countering the challenges posed. In the past decade or so, journalism has been disrupted, even devastated, but it can never be allowed to die.

A strong ‘Fourth Estate’, as the media industry is often referred to, is crucial to a country’s democracy. Without it, whether at community or national level, malfeasance thrives. Quality journalism is how a democracy is kept alive.

An industry in trouble

According to Bureau of Circulations data for the fourth quarter of 2020, circulation numbers for daily newspapers in this country are down by 40%, on average, over one year. A substantial drop in circulation numbers and advertising spend has forced the closure of many titles, while others have had to migrate to digital-only formats to cling to life. 

Caxton and CTP Publishers & Printers closed its magazine division, while 38-year-old Associated Media Publishing ceased operations less than three months into the country’s lockdown. There have been retrenchments across the board – including at Arena Holdings, Media24, Independent Newspapers, Primedia and even the SABC. Many media houses, at least in their current form, are facing an existential threat.

Added to dropping circulation figures, the South African media is also facing a credibility crisis, as several media houses and journalists have been ‘captured’ and swayed into publishing propaganda for various political actors.

Wits Journalism’s Professor Franz Kruger, who helms the annual State of the Newsroom Report, says that “along with news organisations around the world, the SA print media have been scrambling for solutions” such as experimenting with paywalls.

“It has been difficult, though, and real innovation may well come from a completely unexpected direction, from outside the traditional media houses who often struggle to be agile enough to respond to a crisis of this magnitude,” says Kruger. 

It is clear that more – if not all – news publishers will be left with little option but to move towards subscription models and make even less content freely available. But to attract and retain subscribers requires consistently thorough, engaging and relevant content for readers – not to mention, affordable.

If publications and broadcasters are forced to find creative ways to sell content, doing so is made even tougher during times of severe economic hardship. Paying for content is suddenly seen as a luxury many people can do without. They would rather seek news and content that’s free, which leads to the proliferation of ‘fake news’ – further damaging the standing of journalists and journalism in the eyes of the public. 

Press Ombudsman Pippa Green is quoted in the State of the Newsroom Report as saying that the “effects of the cutbacks can be seen in many of the complaints that come before the Press Council, itself affected by the economic malaise”.

She adds that “in some cases, they reflect a scramble to publish, lack of verification, inconsistent attempts to allow a right of reply, and in some cases a lack of editorial oversight.”

The need for committed, well-trained, honourable and talented journalists (who come from demographically transformed newsrooms) will always be in demand. The challenge is, how do we produce them?

Sustainable alternative

The sustainable alternative, according to Dr Bob Wekesa, Coordinator of Research, Partnerships and Communications at the African Centre for the Study of the United States at Wits University, is for news organisations to work with journalism schools in such a way that the schools respond to newsroom training and skills needs – both at the degree or diploma training levels – for career-entry journalists – and continuing training for mid-career and senior journalists. 

But if the future is already here and digital, surely the next question is, in a country where internet penetration sits at less than 60% of the population, how to get trustworthy news to as big a pool of readers as possible.

“On the regulatory front, the government ought to step in to compel social media platforms to report their profits here in South Africa,” says Wekesa. “This will help level the advertisement ecology with benefits for South African news organisations”.

Government must ensure internet costs drop significantly. Spectrum allocation has been a talking point for a while now, as it is seen to be the main stumbling block in lowering data prices in the country. A breakthrough on this issue would lead to a drop in the subscription rates that news organisations offer to audiences, believes Wekesa.

“News organisations also have to be creative in audience targeting. For instance, some audiences access content via their phones and this is often short pieces of information while others prefer using computers often for longer pieces.”

The only way to assuage doubts about the reliability of the industry is to continue to produce thorough, informative and inspiring work – the type that exposed and impeded corrupt practices such as state capture. But how to do this with limited resources is the unanswered question.

  • Andile Ndlovu is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 12th issue, themed: #Solutions. We explore #WitsForGood solutions to the structural, political and socioeconomic challenges that persist in South Africa, and we are encouraged by astounding ‘moonshot moments’ where Witsies are advancing science, health, engineering, technology and innovation.