News agency West Cape News has closed its office in the Cape Town city centre after operating there for seven years. Owner Steve Kretzmann and his team of young journalists offer “stories they [big news organisations] don’t have access to… Stories they can’t get to or don’t even know about until we send it to the news editors’ inbox” as well as powerful photographs of life outside the mainstream.
Shutting down the office was a matter of “simple economics”, says Kretzmann. “Expenditure on rent, broadband and Telkom is almost exceeding gross income.”
West Cape News offers a service to news organisations described as “news and stories from the ground up”, something most mainstream newspapers simply don’t have the capacity to do. Now it seems they don’t have the budget either.
Kretzmann says beyond the publication of stories on a freelance pay-per-published-word basis, the big companies haven’t offered much support. “City Press have always been very supportive and pay for commissioned work which they end up not having space to publish,” he says. “Some of the editors at Cape Times and Cape Argus have been great but their desire to use WCN copy is secondary to the demands of the accounting office.”
Mike Loewe, who for years ran a similar news agency in the Eastern Cape, East Cape News, says small, independent news agencies supplying news from areas and beats not covered by the major groups, says “you’re dead in the water” without the support of “big news”. “Small agencies don’t get the support they deserve. Media is battling to hold the line,” he says.
Loewe closed East Cape News, after operating in the province since the mid-1980s, when he “ran out of commercial contracts” and the situation became increasingly “untenable”.
“The space was shut down,” he says. “When (Tony) O’Reilly came to town, our contract with Independent Newspapers ended. O’Reilly gave the money to Rhodes journalism.” The irony was that Loewe had been providing a training ground from young journalists coming out of Walter Sisulu University, students who might not have had any other opportunities to practice their craft.
Kretzmann, too, has been active in the training and development of novice journalists, many from Cape Town’s surrounding townships.
Now, he says, “WCN journalists will no longer be able to rely on the minimum salary provided by WCN and will act as stringers for the agency, working on commission only.
“Of course they would receive a larger commission than they were when using WCN’s office resources as they will have to absorb the costs of getting the story themselves. Otherwise they are free to freelance on their own or try obtain employment elsewhere,” he says.
His training has a solid success rate. “Nomboxolo Makoba went on to become bureau chief for Daily Sun and now works at Parliament; Sandiso Phaliso now freelances full time on his own; Francis Hweshe is busy making a documentary on fracking, and Caitlin Ross works in the City of Cape Town’s communications department. Bianca Silva is now in California working in the sustainability consultancy field and Yugendree Naidoo works at Bush Radio while Siyabonga Kalipa works at CTV. The others I’ve lost touch with,” he says.
Kretzmann says he will operate from a home office and “put more focus on my own stories, as well as continue to investigate new media possibilities. I make myself available for commenting and subbing stories submitted by stringers between midday and 2pm,” he says.
Another issue for small agencies is payment. They don’t have the wherewithal to operate unless paid on time and within a month of supplying the stories. “Some clients pay regularly on 30 days, others have severe glitches in their payment systems. City Press, unfortunately, is one of them,” he says.
And as any freelancer will testify, the word rates paid by most media groups has remained static for years.
“City Press pays the best, at R3.25 per published word. Cape Town Independent pays R2.20. Getting anything above R2 per word from any other newspapers is an exhaustive battle which has occasionally resulted in the loss of a client in what is a very small market to begin with,” Kretzmann says. “Bear in mind R2 per word was the standard payment rate when WCN started in 2006. This may give some indication why the agency as it existed is not longer viable. “
Added to the fact that word rates don’t keep pace with inflation is what Kretzmann says is the “shrinkage of page space in the newspapers”, meaning fewer stories get used. “Only about 50% of content (bear in mind that almost all our content is provided on spec) is used whereas up until three, four years ago between 90-95% of WCN copy got used, even if it was by only one client.
“Additionally, media houses are rarely paying for online usage. In fact, I had a huge battle a few years ago to get my copy off a client’s online site because they seemed to believe they could do what they wanted with it once it appeared in the newspaper. In the end I got 25c a word retrospectively after alerting them to about 100 WCN stories they had posted to their site, allowing the group publications elsewhere in the country (newspapers not available in the Cape) to put them on their pages. But that was the end of that. They’d rather not use the copy online than have to pay for it.
“Also whenever there is an error in the published copy (even if it is an error due to subbing or misreading by the client’s own subs), the blame is pushed to the provider. Thank heaven after seven years of daily production I can count the number of such errors on my fingers – which I think is quite an achievement given that WCN has solely relied on junior or even below-entry-level reporters who have been mentored on the job – however, each incident was potentially damaging to the client relationship,” he says.
How, then, should agencies such as WCN, be kept alive to give the diversity of news so desperately lacking in big media? “I’d say funding from organisations which say they support democracy and independent media, but I’m not a fan of funding. If media houses returned to choosing the best copy, instead of the cheapest copy, it would be a great help,” he says.
“One of the problems is for an agency such as WCN to be truly independent (which we are) you have to operate on a purely commercial basis. The moment money changes hands, which is not as a direct result of product delivered, your independence is compromised. This, of course, means we do not succumb to the lure of PR either.”
IMAGE: West Cape News