I was recently asked to acquire a copyright licence for the distribution and storage of print media content for the Dramatic Artistic and Literary Rights Organisation (Dalro) and the South African Reproduction Rights Organisation (SARRO). They are in the process of collecting royalties from monitoring companies and corporate users on their behalf, “in line with international practice”.
I have no problem with the collection of royalties and the fact that media are protective over copyright protected material. After all, journalists have been interviewing politicians and corporates, studying ferociously thick annual reports to fully understand a corporate strategy and then telling readers about it. That knowledge and work needs to be protected but the timing is odd.
Advertising revenues are decreasing drastically on the back of plummeting readership and circulation figures. Media is now finding the downside to the non-regulated, open source internet where the expectation is that content, particularly news, is free.
Paywalls are considered ‘uncool’, although the Financial Times (FT) in the UK claims much success in terms of the revenue generated from its online presence. But in the case of the FT, I am not surprised. The outstanding print publication becomes an even better read through the value-added content that is provided in the online version. I am happy to pay for it because I receive information and analysis that I otherwise would not be privy to.
South African media have not cracked this. Our online offerings generally do not have added value. They are, in fact, often a replica of the printed version. Why then do I need to pay extra for this privilege? Again, if they offer diverse opinions, such as in iMaverick, I am happy to pay. Few do. So now the same print media, who have lost readers and advertisers, want corporates and monitoring companies to pay for that loss in revenue? Seems desperate to me.
Print media are quick to judge when it comes to government, politicians and, to a lesser extent, the corporate sector. Yet sensitivities run high when they are being criticised. They are often the first to attack any messenger that criticises them or makes generalised statements about ‘the industry’. Never mind that the media are quick to generalise corruption in government. Just follow the clumsy responses from media in debates such as spindoctor Chris Vick versus the media.
This is the same print media that almost 10 years since Sanef commissioned a study into the quality of journalism has not really implemented any of the recommendations. It is the same industry that has only recently started contributing towards the Media Development and Diversity Agency, though more by force than free will.
If the purpose is to improve the quality of journalism, I am prepared to support the print media industry in collecting copyright royalties. But if the purpose is to plug advertising revenue holes, then no.
If the revenues generated can be ring-fenced to benefit the development of journalists and ultimately improve the quality of reporting, every contributor should benefit. Especially corporates and government who would have less reason to complain about inaccurate reporting.
The way forward begins with acknowledging the real problem. Print media needs to admit that they have a quality and reputation problem. Not all of them, but many. As the law of gravity has it, the reputation of a few impacts on many. Admitting this would make print media look that much less desperate.
Wadim Schreiner is managing director of Media Tenor South Africa.