Back in 1997, when I drifted into journalism more or less on a full-time basis, life was good. Although journalists (with a few notable exceptions) didn’t drink nearly as much as I had expected them to, they still respected the institution of lunch.
The atmosphere in the newsroom was congenial and the obvious attraction for me as an outsider was that I was working with respected wordsmiths who tended to be intelligent and have a quick wit. Back then there was little talk of redundancy and annual bonuses were a certainty. Staff morale was high and people were treated respectfully.
Having spent 24 years working in financial markets, I was thrilled to be writing for the country’s largest Sunday newspaper and couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning. That feeling of elation lasted almost a decade and they really were the most enjoyable years of my working life.
Sadly, all that seems to have changed and I don’t seem to meet very many happy journos these days. In fact, I’m not even sure why anybody would seriously consider a career in journalism anymore, other than for the freebies.
Towards the end of last year BDFM, publisher of Business Day and Financial Mail, culled around 30 employees. Well, to be fair, they invited voluntary redundancies, but that still casts a pall of gloom over the staff. If you apply for voluntary redundancy but they can’t afford to lose you then they reserve the right to keep you on.
But where’s the joy in that? You’ve already expressed a desire to get the hell out so how committed are you going to be to staying and getting on with job? If you haven’t applied but they want you out you can be sure that they’ll be sacking you before too long. How’s that supposed to be good for staff morale?
All newspapers are trying to cut costs these days because sales and advertising are not what they were. This is entirely the fault of those in management who decided to give away for free on the internet what they charged for in print form. Did they honestly think that the internet would be a passing fad like the Betamax video machine?
Did they think at all? Probably not, so rather belatedly they are now attempting to charge for content and they seem surprised that so few of us are willing to pay. Click on a Sunday Times story online and up pops a message telling you that quality journalism comes at a price and invites you to subscribe to the online Sunday Times. But at R57 a month it’s twice what the London Daily and Sunday Telegraph charge for access to all their stories, seven days a week. Now that’s real quality journalism and it comes at half the price.
It’s not just the horrific economic outlook for newspapers that has caused so much doom and gloom in the newsroom though. It’s the widening chasm that has developed between management and journalists over the years. There’s little love or respect for the written word from most newspaper owners in South Africa so is it any wonder that the people who put the product together are treated so badly? It’s just a numbers game.
Editors no longer edit and motivate but spend most of their time carrying messages of gloom from management to staff. The vibrancy that existed a decade ago is completely missing. Producing a newspaper these days is just another dull production line job and it shows in the end product. The creative spark has been doused because there simply isn’t enough cash available to put out a decent publication. There’s no money to pay for top freelancers, and columnists now have to be so politically correct if they want to hang on to their jobs that they are barely worth reading.
Of course the solution is very simple. Cut back on all the managers with fancy titles and no real job to do and invest more in quality writing and a better-looking product. But here’s the snag with that plan. Generally it’s the most mediocre people (many of them failed journos) who have climbed the greasy pole of newspaper management and it would have to be their decision to invest in the product. Since that would put their comfy livelihoods at risk it just ain’t gonna happen. And as newspapers gradually go out of business in this country you can rest assured that management will have negotiated their handsome exit packages at the expense of their journalists.