Professor Guy Berger has stepped down from head of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. Here he meows about the future in a story first published in The Media magazine.
Sixteen years at Rhodes journalism equates to roughly 80 cat-life years. A long and lekker time. In assessing it, I lean towards feline metaphor because it’s better for portraying media service than the proverbial canine clichés.
The tired watchdog image is what underpinned the thinking of deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe when he recently told Americans that our journalists “are trained to believe the government by nature is inherently corrupt”.
That’s bunk. We train, and are trained as, moggies.
Most players in our media ecology – whether practitioners or teachers – are equivalent persistent pussycats. We like nothing more than for the public to stroke us for work well done. Our cruel streak is reserved for rats and mice.
Far from instinctive barking on behalf of reactionary media owners, this country’s media critters are independently minded and hard to herd. Yet we stay mindful that – in comparison to the 1970s, when I was a mere journalism kitten studying at Rhodes – our forerunners had less than nine lives left, courtesy of the authoritarians back then.
Since that distant era, we’ve evolved a strong identity and role as an integrated media community, fusing experiences from boardrooms, newsrooms and j-school classrooms. Educators and editors have collaborated wonderfully in SANEF. We’ve jointly shaped journalisms which help advance the continuing imperatives of freedom, equality and empowerment.
Last year, the practitioners, media NGOs and the journalism educators mobilised to protest the Tribunal and the Secrecy Bill. In unprecedented unity, 18 j-schools put out a statement in the Sunday press. They debated with the ANC on their campuses and in the media, and they got thousands of students invested in the issues.
It was a true teaching moment, in more ways than one. On one UNISA blog, a student wrote: “The proposed media appeals tribunal is actually very demotivating to us young and expiring (sic) journalists.”
In 2011, j-teachers and students will take part in the Africa Information and Media Summit in Cape Town, September 17-18. That event seeks to get United Nations approval of an annual ‘Right to Know’ day. If successful, it will be a fitting echo of the UNESCO Windhoek conference 20 years ago, which gave rise to May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. And it would help us fend off roll-back here in South Africa.
But advancing press freedom and access to info can also risk diverting us all from other, even bigger, challenges. In particular: (1) Where is the media going in an age of Wiki-leaks? (2) How should education and training respond?
Here’s an illustration: part of me wants today’s journ students to know that The New Age newspaper is not inspired by aromatherapy, but by the famous fifties title edited by Govin Mbeki.
But another insistent voice warns that we can’t precious time teaching pre-Internet history – certainly not when there’s need to prep both students and practitioners to deal with the burgeoning changes. And yet, it’s also true that teaching how to curate Facebook communities is tethered to a platform that itself could swiftly turn into history. (Remember MySpace, anyone?)
Then there’s another internal voice that clings to the view that the basics of journalism endure over time and so, whatever the ‘history’ we’re teaching, it should be about eternal principles. But I also know that the very fundamentals of journalism are, and always have been, in continuous iteration. And nowadays, we’re in a time of real hothouse change.
Compare the two New Ages. The original was a partisan organ that successfully propagandised for the liberation movement. Its reincarnation needs a model that sets a distance from its ANC-linked funders – if it wants to succeed in a news marketplace that’s way larger than even existing newspaper rivals.
Here’s a sign of the new times: you can’t find any statistics that agree on how many South Africans make at least some use of the Internet. You have to mix and match data to find that about five million are doing digital on wired and/or wireless broadband on diverse devices, while another 11 million have more limited use mainly via their cellphones.
Together, however, that’s one helluva lot of compatriots who are becoming ‘Internet-ised’ and therefore ‘new media-tised’. Yes, we’re not in the USA’s meltdown mode for traditional media, but it would be totally blinkered to dismiss American trends.
Take this tweet from @FakeAPStylebook: “While it’s tempting to call them ‘baristi’ because of the Italian roots, the plural of barista is ‘journalism majors’.” We have to recognise that many media jobs are shrinking, even while there’s expansion in others. At Rhodes, we have more than 600 students spread across eight degrees. What un-thought of work will they be doing five years hence; and how do we best prepare them for this?
My own view is that j-students should be directly involved as entrepreneurs in media mutation and not just see themselves as old-style practitioners-in-waiting. Accordingly, our journalism programmes should change, and some are.
Exhibit 1: at Rhodes, we’re researching the dynamics of a media house (Grocott’s Mail newspaper in Grahamstown) that’s not only owned by our j-school as a practical lab, but which is also now fast becoming a tech company. It’s all about experimental convergence, real-time communications and open-source software, as can be seen at the unique mobi site //ghtnow.co.za.
Exhibit 2: digital television with DVB-T2 will mean more industry jobs, but not simply TV jobs as we know them. Picture a country where 12 million homes have set-top boxes that do lots more than merely decode digital signals to show on analogue sets. These boxes can work, in effect, as home computers – with the TV monitors functioning as large screens.
The scenario is one of broadcasters sending out, for instance, an updated Wikipedia each day, which content then resides on the box for when it’s needed in the home. There’s likely to be a SIM card-modem that enables email services which, in turn, can trigger video-on-demand, delivered through the broadcast stream.
So, forget about media apps for the iPad – think of what could run on smart-ised TV in South Africa. This is why at Rhodes we’re talking to our computer science colleagues about developing a joint ‘apps factory’.
In short, to deal with a new media world, it’s time for us media moggies to get ‘rebooted’. That last word is intended to signal new footwear for media felines, but it’s also meant in the sense of pushing our computers’ restart buttons.
We’re donning new shoes for an ever-quickening pace of change, and blue skies are replacing clogged-up thinking.
A cat’s life – and a pretty exhilarating one.
Follow Professor Guy Berger @guyberger
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