The independent print media sector has thrived under harsh conditions, says Mbali Dhlomo.
Two decades into South Africa’s democracy, the independent print media sector is not only steadily gaining momentum but also getting some of the recognition it deserves.
As the late publisher of the now-folded community newspaper Your Voice in Ficksburg, Andries Tatane, once said: “We are the voices behind the mountain.” Truth be told, the community media sector is the voice that speaks directly to the diverse hearts and souls of communities the length and breadth of this country.
Although they have a monthly print offering well over the eight million mark, and a readership standing at over 20 million, publishers of community newspapers are the first to admit they do what they do because they are passionate about news gathering and information dissemination. They have loyal readers because these newspapers talk about them and their areas and they highlight the challenges they face as communities.
It is no wonder then, that even when there are no major investors or sponsors supporting their initiatives, community publishers still manage to establish their newspapers. Surprisingly, the focus for most of them is not huge profits – well, not immediately anyway. They believe their time is still coming! Ask the majority of community publishers what their wish is, and they will tell you it’s either to own a printing press or to generate enough income to afford a decent, comfortable living for themselves and their families.
Community print publishers are a rare breed of individuals who are committed to their cause, even when the odds are stacked against them. Their never-say-die attitude shows utter commitment to the space they occupy in the media landscape. Anti-competitive behaviour by their adversaries; advertisers disappointing them; print prices rising five-fold every year – most of them have been through it all, yet they still stand. Their attitude is similar to that of a woodpecker, steadily chipping away at a tree, enduring the elements and dodging predators, until a comfortable nest is formed.
So what drives independent publishers to trek through this difficult terrain? What makes them wake up every day? What makes them dream these seemingly unattainable dreams? It is the passion to make news accessible to communities.
Community newspaper publishers are well aware of the value their publications have in society. They know the news they gather is unique and that they are providing an exclusive service to their communities.
While community newspaper publishers hope one day this industry will be transformed enough for them to own printing presses and run their own media houses, there is an additional element to their understanding of the meaning of transformation. As Diphete Bopape of Seipone News in Limpopo puts it, ”Transformation means taking people in your stride, and taking the majority of society along with you, as you move forward.“ They are aware that, even when they have made it, even when this industry is transformed, they can never lose sight of the people who supported them all the way – the communities who are their readers.
While the government is trying to support the endeavours of the community media sector, it remains to be seen when this will eventually materialise into something tangible that will benefit publishers. At an imbizo in Eastern Cape, communications minister Faith Muthambi said government does recognise the importance of the community print media sector and that all government structures should support them through paid advertising, to help create sustainable media models.
”Government needs to focus on ensuring that the community media sector is given the necessary support to flourish and not be seen as a secondary means of communicating with our people,” the minister said.
While talk of government advertising support goes on, this sector is moving to improve its own lot. The Association of Independent Newspapers (AIP) and digital media company Ole Media have formed a partnership to create an innovative syndication platform, being piloted with 50 publications. If the pilot phase is successful, this platform will be rolled out to over 250 community publications countrywide.
And through the AIP, the community print media sector is also taking full advantage of training opportunities offered in the form of bursaries by Rhodes University, University of Johannesburg and Wits University. These training opportunities have kept the publishers on par with other media players.
One can only hope that the coming years will see the realisation of the aspirations of the publishers who make up this sector, and that they will no longer be known as “grassroots” but simply an empowered community print media sector enjoying the full benefits of media transformation in this country.
IMAGE: AIP Facebook page
This post was first published in the May 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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