Retrenchments, retirements, purges, dismissals… there’s no doubt that jobs in the media industry have been slashed over the past couple of years. Glenda Nevill investigates the impact of this.
The South African Freelancers Association (Safrea) expanded its member base by 27 percent in 2014. Considering that, conservatively, around 596* employees in the media sector lost their jobs, it is not surprising that Safrea’s membership numbers swelled considerably.
“Retrenchments have most certainly affected the more senior and experienced people (those over 40 years), who of course were earning better than juniors,” says Dr Glenda Daniels, author of the State of the Newsroom Report 2014: Disruptions Accelerated and senior media studies lecturer at Wits University. She tackled retrenchments from July 2013 to July 2014 in her research, although she didn’t specifically drill down to the nitty gritty of the ages and gender of those who lost jobs. Says Daniels, “One editor friend of mine said, ‘It’s really sad, where once senior experienced people like yourself sat, there are now empty chairs; will they be filled again?’”
Her research showed that Media24 retrenched 446 people (the company closed a number of magazines), Times Media Group (TMG) around 100, while 50 of Independent Media’s production staff were retrenched.
Independent Media also found itself in the news over 12 senior members of staff who left in controversial circumstances. The Media Workers Association of South Africa (MWASA) listed them as Alide Dasnois (Cape Times editor); Janet Heard (Cape Times assistant editor: news); Martine Barker (managing editor); Dave Chambers (Independent production editor); Makhudu Sefara (The Star editor); Moshoeshoe Monare (Sunday Independent editor); Philani Mgwaba (The Mercury editor); Donwald Pressly (Business Report Cape bureau chief); Terry Bell (labour columnist); Chris Whitfield (editor in chief); Ann Crotty (Business Report journalist); and Sybrand Mostert (Cape Times news editor). Later, Cape Times chief sub and content editor, Glenn Bownes, was dismissed and the newspaper’s opinions and analysis editor, Tony Weaver, left after a disciplinary inquiry.
Since this story was first published in The Media magazine, TMG has slashed subbing jobs at Business Day, electing to form a ‘subs hub’ combining the subs desks of BD and The Times newspaper.
Daniels says newspaper employees have been hardest hit and not just in terms of editorial staff, but also in advertising and production. The impact is being felt in terms of quality and diversity, Daniels says, pointing to “overworked journalists” in newsrooms and a glut of syndicated news copy across different platforms, leaving readers with very little real choice.
What has happened to all these editors, journalists, photographers, graphic artists, sub-editors, and production staff? With newspapers battling declining circulations, and magazine titles being shut down if their numbers go below a certain threshold, jobs in print media are certainly not easy pickings.
Dasnois is now a part-time associate editor at GroundUp, an online community journalism project reporting from South Africa’s townships that is devoted to “high-quality, ethical journalism”. Heard is Media24’s parliamentary editor. Sefara heads the City of Johannesburg’s communications. Monare is deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian. Crotty has gone to the Sunday Times and Pressly to Noseweek. Chambers has joined The Times in Cape Town and Bell’s column has found a home at City Press. Mostert is editing books and running his own travel website. Whitfield took early retirement. TMG sports photographer Sydney Seshibedi has launched a community newspaper in Roodepoort.
But Whitfield’s name popped up again in late January, as did Weaver’s, in an email from Dr Denis Worrall in which he announced the launch of a new online newspaper, the Cape Messenger, to be published three times a week and which has a strong business focus. He said Whitfield, Weaver, former Cape Times editor Tony Heard and former political editor Gerald Shaw had agreed to be the title’s editorial advisors.
Freelancing has always been the refuge of journalists and photographers, some by choice and others through circumstance, and as Safrea’s growth has shown, the sector now has many more players in the field. Chairman of Safrea, Clive Lotter, says competent and well-networked freelancers do find regular work “regardless of how tight the market becomes”.
“Even so, those who compete in traditional mainstream segments, such as sub-editing and feature writing for the print media, are chasing after work in shrinking markets. They need to reinvent themselves and look for specific niches or specialities, particularly in digital and social media,” Lotter says.
As broadband connectivity rolls out and becomes faster, businesses of all kinds are grasping the opportunity to downsize and outsource many of their functions, he says. “They will always need skilled communicators and designers to sell their products or services, therefore freelancers must identify these new niches and position themselves accordingly.”
And therein lies the rub. Many of those retrenched or dismissed who haven’t found positions on other titles are battling to market themselves in this highly competitive marketplace.
Award-winning photographer Halden Krog was one of 11 photographers retrenched last year when the The Times and Sunday Times slashed its photographic department. “It is quite difficult finding work not because there is a lack, but more because after being a staffer for 15 years at various South African papers, I’ve never had to market myself and so I find that challenging; the constant selling of yourself becomes exhausting,” he says.
Krog is upskilling to become more valuable. “I am busy with a video shooting and editing course as I have been lucky enough to sign with a news business service and will soon be producing small video clips for their online platform and I am learning the finer details of blogging for an online magazine. Both I have never thought I would learn or have to do, but there you go,” he says.
Photographer Shelley Christians, who took voluntary retrenchment at the same time, said it was incredibly difficult to start freelancing. “It was forced upon me. I worked really hard. I liked having a stable income. I liked driving to my office, belonging to my ‘office family’,” she says. Christians still gets two to three shifts a week at TMG. “The photojournalism community has really touched me. All my freelance referrals come from other photographers. People call me and give me ideas about stories to shoot to try and help me,” she says.
Christians said it was a tough adjustment, though. “I lost a lot of weight, my hair starting falling out from stress. I had to learn to relax and now enjoy freelancing,” she says. Like Krog, she is learning video skills and has invested in video equipment. She’s also completed a B.Tech in photography so she can lecture.
Daniel Born was one of the TMG photographers who found a position in another company. “I had the idea to start an agency and approached Greatstock with my idea (when) The Times was talking about retrenchments. They were looking for someone to run their picture desk, so I was quite lucky that we were thinking along the same lines,” he says.
Unlike Christians and Krog, Born knew he would land on his feet. “When I was at The Times, I was looked at the sort of images that sell and those that don’t and I realised that what newspapers are covering is not what’s actually selling. The images that sell are those shareable content moments. Even though they’re not always considered true journalism, it’s what most of the public wants. I worked out the amount of features like this that would have to be covered in a month and my expenses and I saw that it was definitely still possible to have a career as a journalist (just not always in the way that most would like),” he says.
Others have completely changed direction. Veterans Tony Jackman and Diane Cassere worked at Independent Media in Cape Town as sub-editors when they – and many others – were told they had to reapply for their jobs. They were “outraged and offended” that as skilled professionals they had to prove their credentials.
“An angel came to us in the form of Sandra Antrobus, who offered us the lease on The Schreiner Bistro and Tea Room in Cradock. This marries my fascination with the great feminist, activist and writer, Olive Schreiner, and with food and cooking. It was a lifeline that somehow seemed designed for Di and me by the universe. Extraordinary,” says Jackman.
Bownes did “very little” in the first couple of months after his dismissal. “I realised in retrospect that I was depressed. Since then I have started doing some freelance editing and writing for News24. There aren’t loads of jobs out there and there are quite a few unemployed and experienced journos looking for work,” he says. “There’s been quite a bit of talk about setting up alternative news sites or papers. But these things take capital and are financially risky. I think the loss of experienced writers and subs has had a major impact on the quality of journalism… You can see it (from) the questions not asked by writers to the quality of headline writing.”
The tough market has also hit some freelancers, but Cathy Dippnall has found a new way to make money. “I found out about www.contributoria.com through fellow freelancer and Safrea member, Raymond Joseph,” she explains. “It is a crowd-funding website and is a start-up project of The Guardian newspaper in the UK. You pitch and have to get supporters to back you. This can be via social media, emails or word-of-mouth. It is up to the writer to decide on how much you want to be paid and it is in GB pounds.” She says Contributoria has been a “lifesaver” and that she’s started 2015 on a positive note.
Trish Beaver, who says she was unceremoniously marched out of The Witness after revealing the editor’s salary, has launched a web magazine for the KZN Midlands. She is also freelancing and doing some public relations work. “I feel relieved to be out of the newspaper world, I feel that most of the reasons I became a journalist are no longer valid. Ethics of the editorial management have largely changed; advertising now takes precedence over stories that should be told; and journalists are treated with contempt and paid badly,” Beaver says.
Pauline Rose is a photo editor who “worked for two magazines (different companies) that closed down”, Soul and Bella. Rose upskilled by learning layout and design. But she says the rise of digital magazines has negated the use of layout artists. Refusing to lie down, Rose then taught herself website design and various new digital skills. “Finding clients is mostly from recommendations. Freelancing does not give you a fixed income on a month-to-month basis. But in general income is higher than working for one fixed employer,” she says.
It’s tough out there, but those affected by job losses aren’t taking it lying down. Jackman has some advice. “Retain your dignity despite the odds. And know that one day a bunch of journos will be sitting drinking in a pub and one will say, ‘Remember that guy who bought Independent Newspapers and caused all the trouble? Whatever happened to him?’ The journos will still be there.”
* Research by Wits Journalism for State of the Newsroom Report 2014.
This post was first published in the March 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
IMAGE: Tony Jackman and Di Cassere
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