Quite ironically, South African newspaper journalists were mostly a happy bunch during the apartheid years. Well, those who weren’t in jail were happy with their lot.
They worked in one of the most bizarre political environments on earth and an almost complete lack of competition meant newspapers were all making money hand over fist.
The Star, for example, had something like 160 editorial staff so there was plenty of time to research and write stories and find time to head off to a favourite watering hole at lunchtime and stay there until night fell.
They were all able to clobber the government right, left and centre knowing they were morally right and also knowing their editors and managers would protect them from the myriad media restrictions and laws imposed back then.
Editors and journalists were also protected by a massive firewall that prevented management and advertising people from telling them what or what not to write.
Editors told really big brands such as Rembrandt and Nissan to go and get stuffed when they complained about negative reporting.
It’s not like that any more.
And I have to wonder if there are any happy newspaper journalists around.
When South Africa became a democracy and the media market opened up, newspaper jobs were slashed right, left and centre. There wasn’t a hack anywhere who wasn’t wondering when the axe would fall.
On top of that, competition saw newspapers having to work for their profits – when there were profits.
Editors were dragged into the marketing process by having to meet advertising clients and being nice to them.
This year is not going to see many print journalists resting easy.
Those working for Independent Newspapers have found themselves in a quandary. Having always been ‘opposition’ newspapers, they now have the perception that their boss, Iqbal Survé, is very much an ANC man in spite of his protestations the he is independent and impartial.
When the editor of the Cape Times, Alide Dasnois was ‘fired’, journalists began to get jittery.
There haven’t been any mass resignations though – I suppose because there aren’t exactly a lot of openings in the newspaper business these days.
Also, things aren’t exactly rosy over at Naspers. Their newspapers aren’t making money and in fact, contributed so little to group profits they only got a single line mention in the latest annual report.
Then of course, there is the Times Media Group (TMG) where everything should technically be hunky dory because at least their hacks don’t have to worry about political interference.
Trouble is, only a year or so after Business Day declared itself “digital first”, the new owners decided Business Day editorial staff had to be cut back, which is probably in direct contravention of any ‘digital first’ strategy.
One of the reasons given was that Business Day’s editorial staff was bigger than that of the Sunday Times. One has to wonder about this lack of understanding about the effort involved in producing a daily newspaper as opposed to a Sunday title.
Now it transpires that Caxton has been offloading TMG shares and also successfully stomped on TMG’s efforts to buy out RamsayMedia.
So, bad blood is flying all over the place. Survé and TMG can’t stand each other. TMG and Caxton are at it. All of them don’t particularly like Media24 newspapers and way out on the periphery is The New Age and the strong industry perception they are a pro-ANC medium.
And, in spite of their protestations, one has to say that perceptions are stronger than fact.
I suppose then, that Mail & Guardian journalists should be a happy bunch. I haven’t heard too many mutterings.
And the reason they’re happy is because they are independent and have the backing of some pretty fearless editors and management.
Caxton community newspaper journalists mighty also be happy. They don’t have a history of happiness because they all complain about being poorly paid. But they should be happy because they are working for the only newspapers that are making money these days.
Hopefully, the newspaper business will sort itself out and once again become a haven for happy journalists.
But this won’t happen until newspaper owners understand where their relevance really lies.
It also won’t happen until newspaper owners have the balls to admit their political bias and stop fannying about on the fence.
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
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