OPINION: Large swathes of South African journalism is pure rubbish, says Chris Gibbons, who argues that industry management only has itself to blame.
When the new team took over at Times Media Group, CEO Andrew Bonamour, latterly of private equity firm Blackstar, was quoted in Business Day as saying that it was “a big investment” and he wants “to make sure it works”. But if that’s the case, why did TMG allow the first round of retrenchments of senior journalists to go ahead? This was before they had even fitted themselves to the plush seats in Mahogany Row? (It’s not called Mahogany Row any more, but it’s just as plush.)
Unfair, perhaps, to single out Bonamour and friends, because my view applies to every large media organisation in South Africa, without exception. Let’s be clear: great media – or in TMG’s case, great newspapers – are created by brilliant journalists, among them reporters, writers, editors, columnists, photographers and cartoonists who deliver superb content. This content is packaged with style and flair and sold to advertisers by highly skilled salespeople. Screw with that formula at your peril.
But that is what has been happening, not just here, but in many other parts of the world, too. Ask the CEOs of any large newspaper group about business and they’ll wail back at you: “Oh, it’s the internet! We can’t compete!”
They can’t compete because in the relentless squeeze for more and more profit, they’ve killed the goose that lays the golden egg: compelling product. Journalists’ salaries have been forced down, freelance rates cut to the bone and costs eliminated to the point where there are almost no reporters over the age of 30, and few senior desk editors over 40. If you have a family, you can’t afford to be a good reporter in this country. Disbelieve me? Count how many of the very best are now working in PR or corporate communications and look at the juniors who replaced them.
When last did you read the opinion of, or listen to a report from a 50-year-old correspondent, with a career devoted to one beat or single area of expertise? A labour or science writer? An African affairs editor? A medical correspondent? We simply don’t have them because the media houses refuse to pay them. Who keeps foreign bureaux anymore? Instead, we have a string of 25-year-olds doing everything and anything, some of them to the best of their considerable ability, but seldom delivering anything more than ill-informed pabulum. No – I didn’t know much at 25 either. Certainly not enough to deliver commentary for a major radio news show or the op ed page of a quality newspaper.
Journalism is a craft, occasionally like surgery or accounting, but more often like plumbing. We’re happy to pay a 30-year veteran plumber to fix our drains. With all that experience, he’ll know what’s going on and get the job done. And we certainly wouldn’t want someone fresh out of plumbing school fiddling around in our sewer with the rods and brushes. Yet we’re quite OK assigning coverage of Mangaung or Parliament to people with even less experience?
Pick up a house journal. You know, the kind of magazine you receive from the big insurance companies, or find in your hotel room. If you didn’t know, this area of the media is called contract publishing. Most of these are dreadful. Plenty of great ideas, but hamstrung in the execution. OK – what do you expect if you’re paying freelancers R2 per word for a 500-word piece? Yes, that’s the base rate in both Johannesburg and Cape Town and it takes a tough writer to say no to a commissioning editor in these hard times. Anyway, if you don’t want the gig, someone else will.
But that 500-word piece might represent a day or a day-and-a-half’s worth of work.
What happens? It gets knocked off in a hurry, so the writer can move on to the next thing at R2 per word, and the next thing, and the next. Shallow, insubstantial and poorly researched. Oh, by the way, tell the designers, royalty-free stock shots only. (That’s why all these mags look the same.)
And we wonder why the readers bin them at first sight?
It’s one reason the internet has become so big. If you serve your customers garbage, they’ll find what they want elsewhere. The papers that retain brilliant content and great journalists – the Financial Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, etc. – put up paywalls and prosper. Audiences want great content: deliver and they will pay for it.
Good writing takes time, thought, research, preparation, gestation, knowledge and experience. Good reporting is the same – emphasise knowledge and experience. It’s why Christiane Amanpour is formidable – 30 years later, she knows her subjects backwards. And she does not work for R2 a word.
You get what you pay for. At the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), I’ve been lucky enough to have a client who understands this. At Acumen, I’ve been able to pay writers fairly and I have a photo budget that allows me to use world-class lensmen like Greg Marinovich. I’ve also been able to approach senior international writers and pay them accordingly. The net result – excellent feedback from readers, an increased print-run and growth in advertising.
Isn’t that what investors in media, especially from private equity, also want?
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