On any day of the week, Mpumalanga residents wake up to a selection from close to 50 newspaper titles with varying shelf times. Almost a third of these are published by conglomerate Caxton CTP through Nelspruit-based Lowveld Media.
Independent newspapers, which focus on grassroots issues, have had mixed fortunes. This has impacted negatively on the diversification of media ownership in the province and on the ability to serve diverse audiences.
Austin Moyo started Khanyisa in Standerton with the aim of counter-balancing the influence of conglomerates in the area. Khanyisa, however, doesn’t have enough muscle to establish a provincial footprint.
Journalist Michelle Mashiane of Witbank started Coal City News, which is commercially sustainable.
The Voice of Nkomazi, an NGO-produced newspaper in Schoemansdal, is, however, struggling to survive. In the 2005-’06 financial year the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) financed the printing and production of 26 issues.
None of these titles are published in indigenous languages. African Eye News Service founder and Homegrown Magazines publisher, Justin Arenstein, ascribes the struggle of some independent titles and the absence of indigenous-language titles to the absence of a large population in any demographic segment. “One of the problems with media sustainability in Mpumalanga is that there often simply isn’t a large enough market to achieve critical mass for commercially sustainable ventures. And, even its black population (the majority speakers of indigenous languages) isn’t that big and definitely isn’t a single homogenous market.”
Despite the fact that 70 percent of the population of approximately 3.5-million people speak a Nguni language, Maggie Messit, whose NGO started the newspaper Amazwi The Villager, believes that, given the commercial interests of publishers, it will be a tall order to set up an indigenous-language newspaper in the province.
The majority of publications in the province are targeting a minority and those focusing on grassroots issues are constantly on a knife-edge.
The Association of Independent Publishers (AIP), of which Arenstein is a member, has 26 members in Mpumalanga.
“Obvious disparities are that most of the AIP publications and virtually all the conglomerate titles target adult and employed readers,” he says.
“The largest hurdle to local print media ownership is economic,” says Arenstein, adding that a small publisher will at some stage still need to interact with the conglomerates who, for example, own the printing presses.
Messit says the problem with achieving diversity in ownership in Mpumalanga media lies with the lack of local media skills.
To remedy the situation, Paula Fray, Inter Press Service (IPS) regional director for Africa, says: “There needs to be a greater effort to attract graduates back to their home provinces and this can only be done by making regional media attractive.
“In terms of business, regional media will only survive with the support of regional business and audiences. If anything, national advertisers would contribute greatly to the vibrancy of the media in South Africa if they looked beyond national, urban-based media and took a closer look at the opportunities in the regions.”
Goodenough Mashego is a freelance journalist.
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (November 2008)