Last year’s debut State of the Newsroom report postulated that South Africa’s media landscape was a “leaky ship facing strong headwinds but with an adventuring spirit”. This year the “newsroom ship battened down the hatches amid the gathering storm”.
The elements of this storm are retrenchments, lowered morale, shrunken staff, elusive digital sustainability, lowered ad revenue, declining circulations, controversy around the SABC, Independent Media, and the South African Press Association, as well as uncertainty over the future of media research due to ongoing issues at the South African Audience Foundation (Saarf). Rough seas indeed.
While this year’s Wits Journalism School’s SoN report is titled ‘Disruption Accelerated’, its editor Dr Glenda Daniels says these disruptions in South Africa’s newsrooms open up opportunities as they shake up “institutions and leadership, which may have become complacent, rigid and defensive”.
“This turmoil is a global phenomenon as newsrooms take on the challenges of new technologies, but it has distinct local characteristics, particularly because of the on-going demands of social and political transformation needed to create a media which can best serve democracy and deal with the legacies of apartheid,” Professors Anton Harver and Franz Kruger write in the preface to the report.
Researchers collected data between August 2013 and August 2014, which was based on “formal surveys and one-on-one interviews with 77 editors, managers, journalists and experts from all media types”.
While the report makes for ‘disruptive’ reading, it’s not all gloom and doom, says Daniels. “Parallel to this negative path – for print – there were significant expansions in broadcast media, community media as well as digital media – increasing diversity in the media landscape.
Nevertheless, Daniels say research in terms of transformation revealed “dismal race and gender developments – for example, the number of women in top leadership positions in media decreased and the percentage of women on the boards of media companies stood at 4%”, a “grim” percentage that is the same as last year.
But on the positive side, there was more diversity in ownership led by the acquisition of Independent Media by the Sekunjalo-led consortium, as well as new radio licences and the launch of two TV news channels, ANN7 and SABC’s 24-hour channel.
The report is divided into seven chapters, and The Media Online will look at each of them in more depth over the next few weeks, but today we are focusing on the first chapter, The Media Landscape. (Others are Digital-First Developments: Experimentation and Promiscuity, Social-Media Trends, Twitter and Journalism, Community Newspapers: Diversities and Difficulties, Community Radio: Power Plays and Pressures, and Where Do Journalism Graduates Go?)
Daniels says positive developments such as Independent Media bing bought by a black consortium took place against the backdrop of an “increasingly threatening environment for journalists”, something that’s following a global trend. Investigative journalists, those pursuing corruption stories and photojournalists covering service-delivery protests have been particularly hard hit.
“The environment included incidents of surveillance and the alleged tapping of journalists’ phones,2 a number of assaults and harassment of journalists and photographers, including one death3 and a violent arson attack that completely burnt a community radio station to the ground.4 All this occurred against an ominous legislative backdrop: the impending signing into law of the Protection of State Information and Intelligence Bills and the existing anachronistic National Key Points Act,” she writes.
Then there’s the threat of commercial challenges. Daniels says journalists in newsrooms felt “the fierce economic pressure their media companies were under as they competed for the ever splintering advertising revenue pie and consumers’ attention”.
The biggest stories covered during the reporting period were Nkandla (the massive R246-million spent on President Jacob Zuma’s private home continues to anger South Africans despite government’s best efforts to downplay the story); the death of former president and global statesman, Nelson Mandela; and the Oscar Pistorius killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp and the subsequent trial. All have garnered not just South African attention, but are the focus of global reporting.
Daniels reports that while the ANC – and the president himself – has accused media of paying undue attention to Nkandla, a study by Professor Jeanne Prinsloo of the Media Policy and Democracy Project found that City Press and the Mail & Guardian “acted in the interests of democracy”. She said while reports were “highly critical” they did not constitute an attack on the ANC or Zuma. But she found the ANC wanting. “On the other hand, the ANC public officials felt no obligation to provide access to the information about public spending that was requested. President Zuma at no stage saw fit to address the issue or reassure the public of South Africa”. However, she did feel newspaper reports showed a “lack of diversity of voices”.
Coverage of Mandela’s death, however, was universally praised. The Pistorius trial, says Daniels, “signalled a new era for media” as it was a “victory for open justice. “…the court ruled that all trial audio could be broadcast live on radio, TV and online. Traffic on local news websites shot through the roof, attesting to consumers’ appetite for getting first-hand news quickly while daily newspapers struggled to keep up”.
Sunshine stories and the SABC
Sunshine journalism was also an issue over the past year – and election year – with Zuma leading the charge, ably supported by controversial SABC chief operating officer, Hlaudi Motsoeneng. The ANC pushed its line, ‘South Africa has a good story to tell’, and Daniels stood up the story with telling quotes from a number of public officials. The discourse, she says, “indicates the intense desire of the ANC, the government and the president, including the public broadcaster, for more sunshine journalism, or a more patriotic core of journalists, to portray the country in a more favourable light”.
The SABC had to deal with the Motsoeneng issue, fingered by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela in her report When Governance And Ethics Fail for abuse of power, maladministration and having a lack of corporate governance. The public broadcaster is still dealing with a “leadership vacuum”.
The SABC will face new competition as Icasa granted provisional licences to five new pay-TV operators in April 2014. Already, Siyaya managed to wrest the rights to broadcast Bafana Bafana games from the SABC, under Motsoeneng’s watch. Other licensees are Close-T Broadcast Network Holdings, Kagiso TV, Mindset Media Enterprises; and Mobile TV.
More radio licences were granted too, and the Times Media Group snapped up Mpower, took a stake in VUMA FM and is looking to Africa to increase its radio holdings. Then Icasa in April 2014, Icasa issued three new licences on medium wave (MW): LM Radio, TalkSport and Magic 828 in Cape Town.
And print media?
Print media is looking shaky, says Daniels, with daily newspapers taking the most strain. “The majority of the newspapers’ copy sales and total circulation had decreased year on year, from April 2013 to April 2014, as tracked by SoN. We used figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations in April last year year compared with those of April 2014 to track the trends,” Daniels writes.
“The ABC found that total newspaper circulation has declined on average by 5.5% almost yearly since 2008.Print was suffering from decreasing revenues,” she says. At the same time, print is “struggling to make the transition to digital first”. The biggest news in print was the Sekunjalo buyout of Independent Media, and this was not without its dramas, as well as an all out war between owner Dr Iqbal Surve and the Mail & Guardian. Independent Media saw a rash of resignations and dismissals, particularly at the higher levels of news management.
Daniels mentions native advertising as a major newsroom trend. “What is clear though is that the blurring lines between editorial and advertorial are indicative of how broken the old publishing revenue models are. In an age of fluidity and newsroom experimentation, native advertising is being hailed as an apparently win-win situation for newsrooms under pressure,” she says.
The new-look Press Council was hard at work over the period with 530 complaints in the past year, “the highest number of complaints the Press Council has ever had. Of these, only 142 went to rulings. This is due to the fact that the Public Advocate settled most complaints amicably, according to the Press Council”.
But some “worrying” trends have emerged too, she says. “The waiver of the right to sue, which was dropped temporarily – for a year – to test the waters might be revisited after a case in 2014 of a woman suing The Witness after having won at the Press Council. In addition, Noseweek withdrew from the council because it believed the abandonment of the waiver was unfair,” Daniels says. The use of lawyers was worrying too.
“Also, many complaints fell outside the jurisdiction of the Press Council, for instance, complaints about advertising or broadcasting, complaints about newspaper deliveries or that an editor wouldn’t publish a letter,” she says.
The biggest “transgressions” by media in terms of Press Council complaints was not been given the right to reply or comment and the second biggest was accuracy. The third issue was the use of secondary sources. “Reporters often copy what other journalists are saying rather than establishing facts for themselves. For example, Julius Malema’s ‘R16-million tax bill’, was in fact R8-million. In the majority of cases, newspapers give their full co-operation to the Press Council. The Sunday Times was most complained about – but it was also the largest circulating newspaper in SA and so this must be seen in this light, the Ombudsman cautioned,” Daniels writes.
Interestingly, compliance about apologies being run on the front page was at 100%.
But there are reservations, prominent of which is the view of City Press editor, Ferial Haffajee, who beliieves the Press Council system could be too conservative in its rulings and not leaning enough in favour of free speech. Haffajee felt some of the rulings had an “almost Calvinist respect for authority”.
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