The South African news industry faces the challenges of its global counterparts but also has to deal with another massive issue, that of transformation not just of newsrooms but in the upper echelons of management in the country’s major media houses.
A wide-ranging and thorough report by Wits journalism school, spearheaded by Dr Glenda Daniels, has found South Africa’s media landscape to be one in a state of change. Wits Journalism’s Professor Anton Harber and Professor Franz Kruger, in the preface of The State of the Newsroom: Disruptions and Transitions (SoN) study, say South African media organisations are facing a “difficult and tremendously exciting time, demanding a balance between boldness and thoughtfulness, innovation and convention”.
Newsrooms that participated included Business Day, Eyewitness News, CNBC Africa, SABC, Mail & Guardian, Beeld, Sunday Times, City Press, The Witness, The Citizen and Sowetan. The research took place over the space of a year, between June 2012 and June 2013.
In a nutshell, says Daniels in the executive summary, the “newsroom of South Africa today is a ship sailing into extreme headwinds of change – from digital disruption, regulatory change and government hostility to downsized newsrooms, declining circulation and shifting revenue models”.
Daniels and her team remain optimistic. “But if the vessel is being buffeted this way and that, it is also showing signs of meeting change head-on such as in gender and race transformation and with varied and pluralistic training. Crucially, we found in the newsrooms surveyed more optimism than negative sentiment about the move from traditional media to digital-first although none could envision the end point.
“So a leaky ship, perhaps, but a tough one and with an adventuring spirit.”
The report is divided into six sections: the Media Landscape; the Legal, Regulatory and Political Framework; Race and Gender; Digital First; the Ombudsman’s Rulings; and Training.
Today, The Media Online looks at the issue of race and gender and what people working in newsrooms thin. Newsrooms, after all, are the engine rooms of newspapers where the action takes place.
The State of the Newsroom report was released the same week as Print and Digital Media SA received its report on transformation from the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT).
While the PDMTTT took submissions from a wide variety of sources from media companies themselves to trade unions and political parties, the SoN team surveyed nine newsrooms – CNBC Africa, Eyewitness News (EWN), City Press, Mail & Guardian (M&G), Sunday Times, Beeld, SABC, The Witness and the Sowetan.
The results, at newsroom level, are encouraging with 61% of journalists being black. There was gender parity too, with the number of women journalists standing at 49%. Fifty-five percent of the editors in the nine newsrooms are black, and 45% white. The same figures applied to male and female editors.
These numbers are substantially different from 2002 when the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) conducted a Journalism Skills Audit that found newsrooms were mostly white as were the sub editors departments of the news groups.
“The 2002 audit pointed out that some African reporters left publications for other occupations in the field of communication too early to advance to sub-editing. One editor, the audit noted, said this had created a generation gap between junior reporting staff and senior sub-editors that would take at least 10 years or more to rectify. A decade ago, the issues of race and gender were centred on how to balance the issues of affirmative action and experience – and retain skills,” the SoN report says.
Daniels said media companies, in general, were “suspicious of the request by our team for their EE policy documents and seemed reluctant to part with them”.
Media24 “strives to respect dignity, maintain fair labour practices, and it regards employment equity as a “strategic priority”. The EE policy has four “focal points”: 1. absence of unfair discrimination; 2. affirmative action; 3. equal opportunities; and 4. welcoming and utilising diversity”.
Times Media Group’s “intention is to eliminate unfair discrimination in the company; take steps to promote equality; to promote diversity; and to redress imbalances”.
M&G Media believes that EE is not a “gesture of good- will but a strategic business imperative”. The purpose of its policy is “to transform and maintain M&G Media as a non-racial and non-sexist organisation that provides red- ress to previously disadvantaged individuals”,
The SABC states that it is committed to “eliminate unfair discrimination in employment, ensure the implementation of employment equity to redress the effects of discrimination;
CNBC africa’s holding company ABN360’s EE policy states that it supports the principles as reflected in the Employment Equity Act. Affirmative-action measures will be used “as far as possible to redress the effect of historical patterns of discrimination
Interviews with staff in the newsrooms surveyed yielded some interesting viewpoints. An SABC editor, for example, said the SABC was no longer representative enough of all South Africans, which threw up other challenges. “Personally I don’t think [the newsroom is] representative enough. I think it’s too black. I think we need more white people, in particular, in the newsroom otherwise we end up with a blind spot,” he told researchers. Interestingly, no one interviewed at the SABC was prepared to go on record, the SoN reported, a fact that points to “insecurity among editorial staff”.
City Press, on the other hand, expressed a “diverse range of views” and were mainly “mainly comfortable and happy with the changes in their newsroom in the past few years. These changes include race- and gender-composition changes”.
“We stick to the employment-equity policy of the country in line with the labour law,” the papers news editor, Natasha Joseph, told researchers. “There are hundreds of candi dates to choose from in trying to balance race and gender. No candidate is excluded on the basis of race in that excellent whites cannot be excluded unless there are more excellent black candidates.” She mentioned that the investigations team had more whites than blacks.
One of the reporters, Zinhle Mapumulo, said City Press had moved beyond race. “City Press is not a black paper anymore; it appeals to all South Africans,” she said.
Some Mail&Guardian staff said the company was “very white at the top”. Online reporter Faranaaz Parker said the newsroom itself was diverse and intellectually stimulating. “Our editor in chief is a white male but we’ve had previous editors- in-chief who were black and female,” Parker said.
“I don’t think the age or sex of the current editor says much about the organisation. There are black, white, coloured and Indian people at the M&G, people who speak Zulu and people who speak Afrikaans, people that live in Killarney and people who live in the Ponte, an American, a Kenyan and some Zimbabweans. There are straight people, gay people and bisexual people, people who have kids and some who never want any, practising Muslims, lapsed Jews, and evangelical Christians, and a couple of Hindus, Mormons and atheists. We all say what we think when it comes to editorial conference, and the discussions are robust.”
At the Sunday Times, a reporter told the team more women should be included in leadership positions. Section heads were mostly male, with female representation quite high in the entertainment and review sections, ‘soft’ sectors where women are often found. Of course, Phylicia Oppelt was appointed editor this year.
Former Beeld editor Peet Kruger, who resigned and was replaced by City Press deputy editor, Adriaan Basson, said because of its history as a National Party mouthpiece and its language, Beeld struggled to attract black journalists. Whites make up 88% of staff, with 12% being black. In editorial, there were six blacks.
One of South Africa’s oldest newspapers, The Witness, soon to be headed by Andrew Trench, has a predominantly black male make up. Interviews with staff yielded information that didn’t come out in other newsrooms. Or, at least, wasn’t spoken about.
The Witness was formerly headed by new Mail&Guardian editor, Angela Quintal. She was quite open about issues of “gender abuse” in the newsroom. “We live in a patriarchal society so progress has been very slow on the gender front,” she said, adding that female journalists were often afraid to speak out about abuse and ended up depressed and hating their jobs. This was a “serious problem”, Quintal told researchers.
The paper seemed to have a residual sexist attitude left over from the old days, Quintal added.
Interestingly, the newspaper’s deputy news editor Chris Ndaliso, said there was no place for affirmative action in contemporary society. “It is unacceptable to have a newsroom filled with blacks when there are so many white journalists out of work. Affirmative action has led to many innocent people being victimised and deprived of opportunities to be productive. Political interference has denied people their right to apply knowledge for the betterment of the community. It is hypocritical to call ourselves a rainbow nation and then alienate certain race groups,” he said.
Back in the Highveld, at the Sowetan, researchers found 60 out of 64 editorial staff members (94%) were black. with 26 women and 38 men on the editorial side. Managing editor Herbert Mabuza said due to the “”history and DNA” of the paper, the Sowetan attracted black applicants from various backgrounds with varied educational qualifications. “Diversity then becomes a gender issue more than race,” he told researchers. The researcher who interviewed Sowetan editorial staff found the women journalists prefer working for men, that working relations were better with male superiors than female.
“It is a noteworthy observation that gender relations and views were somewhat fraught with tension,” the SoN report said.
In conclusion, SoN researchers identified some key trends emanating from the research into the nine newsrooms. It said:
• Most organisations had newsrooms made up of a majority of black (African, coloured, Indian) staff members while women were close to or more than 50% (except at the Sowetan and The Witness).
• Most journalists interviewed felt that transformation and diversity did not start and end with race and gender. While these issues were important they should not be over-emphasised. Editors looked for competence and ability.
• In some instances there was a disjuncture between the views of editors and journalists. Most editors interviewed believed their newsrooms were balanced and diverse while some editorial staff members did not feel this was the case and that more could be done to make newsrooms more representative, for instance, the M&G with regard to race and the Sunday Times with regard to gender.
While women were generally well represented in newsrooms, males still dominated at senior levels such as section heads and in investigative units.
Subs desks and section heads lacked black representation. It was not measured in any quantitative way here, but it emerged from the interviews. This, as noted in the 2002 Sanef report, was a decades-old problem.
• What was particularly striking was that, across the board, journalists were not aware of their companies implementing employment-equity policies; and if they had heard of one, they had not seen a physical copy of such policies. Editors, however, all said they fol lowed their company’s employment-equity policies.
• It was also noteworthy that companies parted with their EE policies with reluctance and suspicion.
IMAGE: State of the Newsroom / photograph by Liesl Frankson