With open letters à la mode, here is another one – this time to (Afrikaans) editors, written by Lizette Rabe – professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University – for The Media magazine.
Let me begin with the acknowledgement that in our new South Africa there should be no distinction between Afrikaans or English editors, as there should not be between Afrikaans, English, ‘white’ or ‘black’ media. Problems – or, if you want to be more positive, challenges – are the same everywhere, irrespective of the market you serve. Or service, if you prefer the more commercial focus. And nothing wrong with that either. The dichotomy of the media serving and servicing defines the media as an extraordinary role player in society. Point is: Afrikaans media should not be boxed into its own, exclusive little category, meriting exclusive attention.
Secondly: it is accepted that there is much sympathy with editors. Not only do you have to face a digital tsunami, you also have to figure out how to surf this monster wave – and how to do tricks while remaining in control of your surfboard.
Point is: being between a rock and a hard place is a luxury. Indeed, you find yourself squeezed in a vice between the bottom line of the boardroom and the realities of your newsroom. And there you are: trying to remain the idealist you once were, desperately trying to fulfil the ‘public trust’, especially in our still so dangerously immature democracy. While your paper is reduced to an Excel spreadsheet.
The above is not an exclusively Afrikaans media conundrum. Yet, it might be magnified for the Afrikaans market with so much fragmentation and splintering.
So, although Afrikaans media is not the only media sector struggling to meet the demands of a choosy and quicksilver audience in the face of demanding digital challenges, it might be one of our media sectors having to meet the biggest demands.
But should it be a time for condolences and commiserations?
Aren’t the challenges just too exciting and exhilarating?
How to survive? For the broadsheets: becoming a hybrid, more ‘tabloidy’? The tabloids: going even that one step further to out-banal and -absurd one another, with the degrees of comparison tabloid–twaddle–trash?
A recent debate around a front page story for Beeld is a case in point. The lead was the latest skinner on an Afrikaans music ‘bad boy’ and another skelmpie — while not exactly Rome but more or less the rest of the world, including South Africa, is burning. The ‘Arab Uprising’ is likened to the fall of the Berlin Wall: a whole new era in world politics, a whole new zeitgeist. In South Africa there are service delivery crises, youthful aberrations, tenderpreneur-gates, politicians using public budgets for personal pleasure/not using public budgets for public services. All must-reads. Yet a ‘paper of record’ is compelled to lead with skinner.
Of course, Beeld should not be a scapegoat. Even community newspapers succumb. An analysis of the front page of any one week will show how often the tabloid treatment of news leads. Should it be solids on the front page, or candy floss?
We know the answer. And of course this is not an exclusively Afrikaans problem.
So, how does one spell conundrum in Afrikaans?
It doesn’t matter. The media’s conundrum is the same, irrespective of language or target market. Still, with many more products in a much bigger English market, the various titles can maintain a more specific identity, serving various market niches. Not so in Afrikaans.
How then to find a solution to provide your readership with a powerful-yet-sexy dose of news?
While circulations are declining, and you know newspapers are rapidly becoming mediasaurs, you know it’s not about the medium, but the message. But how then to ensure you remain the Afrikaans brand of choice on tablets and e-readers, especially for a generation who are used to getting their news in English via the Internet?
How should must-reads be packaged as nice-to-reads?
The glorious American journalist and satirist HL Mencken said there are no dull subjects, only dull writers – and Afrikaans has excellent journalists (including editors). And maybe we should also remind ourselves of legendary editor Willem Wepener’s adage that a journalist is the “brandsiekinspekteur van die volk” (scab inspector of the nation).
It is not necessary to practise a journalism of hyperbolism. To tell it like it is, is already bad enough. Or should we all lament: where art thou Vrye Weekblad when we need you? Where is the much-needed second-phase reporting – something that will remain the mainstay of print?
Or how about supplying a new era with hitherto non-existing media products? There are examples of ‘print media’ that previously did not exist, and are now launched as e-papers. A well-known German daily which never had a Sunday edition has recently launched a previously unthought-of, and impossible, Sunday e-version. Is that a solution for Afrikaans journalism in order to serve/service certain sectors of a small, but hugely diverse, market?
How to solve the conundrum?
It is a fact that one cannot be all things to all people. The current hybridisation, I’m sure research will show, does not satisfy the top nor middle nor lower end of the market. Afrikaans papers of record should decide whether they want to remain that, or be hybridised – and still lose circulation. And allow a lucrative Afrikaans market in the higher income brackets to migrate to English/online news.
This reader’s plea?
Please, media decision-makers, help our editors to serve – and definitely also service – an Afrikaans market niche that prefers to read news that matters. Let the tabloids out-tabloid themselves. (And, that of course, is a different story. The tabloids’ harm to society should still be audited once ching-ching-fever has subsided and, gulp, that market has matured a bit.)
In the meantime, editors of Afrikaans papers of record: you have us cheering you on.
With the highest regards,
Your fan from Stellenbosch