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Job losses, pay cuts – State of the Newsroom during Covid-19

- Wits University

The 2020 State of the Newsroom report looked at a year of ‘shock, confusion and a need to radically adapt’.

The report, launched in March 2022 and titled Then and Now: Looking Back at the First Year of the Pandemic, investigated the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic had on the South African media in 2020. It also explored data and data governance, and how South Africa’s media should be re-orientating itself to a more local data narrative. And it asks a group of media practitioners what they thought of the South African National Editors’ Forum’s (Sanef’s) 2021 Satchwell Report on media ethics.

State of the Newsroom report 2020

The State of the Newsroom Report illustrated the significant challenges print media, especially magazines and newspapers, faced. CosmopolitanHouse and Leisure and Men’s Health were forced to shut down due to major financial restraints, while a number of community newspapers were either shut down or shuffled around to be amalgamated under one title. 

By the end of 2020, at least 10 local papers had been terminated in one way or another, impacting accountability in small towns and communities where they are needed the most. Kate Skinner, executive director of The Association of Independent Publishers (AIP) noted that though some publications were dying out, there were “counter trends of innovations and improvements in the quality of news and reporting, especially on health topics”.

News24’s online traffic soared during the pandemic, giving it leverage to launch its digital subscription service in August 2020.

“From content and traffic point of view, it has been a good two years for News24. We have seen our audiences double, with readers/audiences staying longer to read articles/content, engagement time has gone up on our app,” said Adriaan Basson, News24’s managing editor. He added: “with the subscription service, we have seen the introduction of a new solid revenue stream”.

Despite a growth in online media, the Daily Maverick made a bold leap into print media in the same month, launching Daily Maverick 168, which can still be found in selected Pick n Pay outlets across the country.

TV viewership over the course of the pandemic also changed significantly. The report found that during the first three months of the pandemic, SABC 3 News attracted 65% more viewers than in previous years. By the end of the year, the top prime time news slots on eTV and SABC 3 attracted around half of their 2016 audience numbers, but fatigue and dwindling interest in the president’s covid-19 updates saw audiences decline after some time.

The year also saw significant job losses in the industry: an estimated 700 jobs were lost at the start of the lockdown and several journalists had to take pay cuts – some as high as 45%. In response, Sanef launched a relief fund for journalists in July 2020 to financially support struggling journalists. The report also highlighted issues of harassment by the police and defence force that journalists faced at the onset of the pandemic.

Two years on, the nature of media continues to shift, but there are mechanisms in place that practitioners can employ to safeguard the informants of our democracy and the work that they do.