The Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team has completed the first phase of its mandate. It has heard submissions into the issue from the majority of print media players in South Africa, big and small. Now it is compiling its report. But Media Monitoring Africa’s William Bird says the print media itself has paid far too little attention to actually reporting on the process.
Transformation is a critical issue – we hear this, and many seem to know and support it – yet, when it comes to the print media, there are only pockets of discussion about it. We read about transformation broadly in our newspapers, and it is often tied to black economic empowerment deals. Transformation forms part of the government’s discourse about society and big business. For all that it is covered in our media, there doesn’t seem to be too much about what transformation actually is, and there is also a tendency in some media circles for it to be framed in negative terms.
For print media, the issue has been firmly on the agenda for the last few years. It was raised during discussions around a possible Media Appeals Tribunal. Parliament’s portfolio committee on communication has held two sets of hearings into transformation of the print industry and the industry has responded by setting up the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT). Of course, the debate around whether the industry can self-transform is controversial, or as Chris Vick puts it, can the turkeys vote for Christmas dinner?
As a concept, transformation is open to interpretation. So when we at Media Monitoring Africa made our submission to the above Parliamentary committee and the PDMTTT, we phrased it as several questions in relation to progress in transformation to date. Why does the print and digital media industry need to transform? Is it a box-ticking exercise? Is it to make management and ownership more representative? Or is it about something more? And, what does it mean to have a transformed media?
In our view, transformation is not a ‘nice to have’, but rather a necessity – especially for a business that seeks to represent South Africa in all its diversity to its audiences.
So why then has an issue of such great importance received so little coverage? It isn’t even as though the process has run smoothly. Soon after the hearings started Caxton, followed shortly thereafter by Times Media Group (TMG), withdrew from the process. Even more interestingly, their reasons for withdrawal were a result of a Competition Commission inquiry into anti-competitive behaviour in the print media industry. In both instances, the withdrawals threatened to destabilise the whole process.
Yet, aside from a few critical pieces in some media, the events were hardly covered. To add more spice, both Caxton and TMG have gone back to the PDMTTT process and, again, there has been very little coverage. The question arises as to whether the Chinese wall between owners and editors is greater than we think or if there are other reasons that an issue so critical to print media should receive so little coverage, and why there was so little attention given to promoting the hearings and the process.
They have definitely been newsworthy. There have been many powerful presentations and inputs from small publishers and non-governmental organisations, journalists and political parties. Each one has presented different views on transformation but all are grappling with it. It relates to bigger issues in society, and in the media, and should be of great interest to the public.
Regrettably some that seek to unpack key issues in journalism, as was the case with the Independent Trust for Media Freedom presentation by Ann Crotty, have not been unpacked or extensively covered in the print media. If you hunt for them you can find some great pieces on the issue online, but not in the mainstream press.
A central issue being debated is a charter. Print and Digitial Media South Africa (PDMSA) and other media stakeholders are opposed to it. But what’s the problem with a charter? Certainly there is some argument that they work. The mining charter is often cited as an example of an effective charter that helped transform its industry. But as we see from the numerous labour disputes and high levels of racism on many mines, having a charter does not necessarilly mean the workers will have a better deal.
In addition to this, the print media is a special industry because of the role it plays in helping to shape the news agenda. Those opposing a charter point out that it hasn’t worked in the advertising industry. Also, there is concern that it may be used as a means for the backdoor registration of media houses and journalists, which would be unacceptable. This is something that needs much more debate.
Right now, the print media industry is going through a torrid time. The issue of transformation is one owners, editors and journalists face whether they want to or not. Their traditional income models are dying, journalists are under-resourced and the print media in general has to play more than a watchdog role. Each one of these issues raises interesting questions about transformation. Each will impact on audiences and yet there is so little discussion about them.
Some newspapers are also ‘asset stripping’, corporate polite speak for ‘screwing over the journalists’; while under foreign ownership, Independent Newspapers cut their journalists from 6 000 to 1 800, while the owners sent any profits out the country to support their ailing UK businesses. It raises the question as to how journalists can be expected to represent, share the views of and inform society about our complex challenges if media owners keep demanding more from fewer and fewer journalists, or if they don’t build their skills.
In her submission to the PDMTT, Crotty put it starkly when she noted, “Many of the shortcomings… are the direct result of relentless cost-cutting over the years, which has forced editors to make absurd choices about what stories not to cover and put unreasonable pressure on reporters, photographers and sub-editors, as well as sales and print staff. We can barely cover the cities properly; the rural areas are effectively out of our reach… The resource constraint has also meant that new young black journalists are absorbed into the prevailing culture of the newsroom and there is not the sort of cross-pollination of attitudes and opinions that would help to better reflect the diversity of voices in SA.”
The PDMTTT may be trying to rescue a process that has been dealt several blows. It remains to be seen if it will succeed, but it is clear that it is dealing with crucial issues that need to be debated and shared. Unless we all engage actively with the complexities, we are likely to continue butting heads in Parliament and to see more egos being stroked or ridiculed with little chance of real transformation happening.
William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa.