The harsh and disparate changes happening currently for newspapers range from new ethical and professional codes, to technological, commercial, and political pressures as well as having to deal with today’s news consumers who are platform agnostic (not loyal to particular brands anymore but demanding news and analysis everywhere and all the time).
The good news is that there has been a huge improvement in newspapers producing fair and accurate journalism in South Africa from four years ago. There appears to be greater awareness from the public of the Public Advocate, the Ombudsman and the Press Council.
Today, newspapers are made to apologise for inaccurate journalism in big and bold, on front pages, as well as sometimes having to explain how the mistake crept in. In the past, newspapers got away with printing half-hearted notes in an inside page: “We regret, we erroneously…”
Since that 2012 strict code, an even newer media code came into force in 2016 to keep pace with the changes brought to journalism due to technological advancements.
The new Media Code is the first one ever to encompass both digital and online media, including user-generated texts, as well as print, and hopefully one day soon will bring in the broadcast media, which is governed by the Broadcast Complaints Commission of SA (BCCSA). This Code of Ethics and Conduct for South African Print and Online Media is built on the foundations of the Press Code.
On the political front, the ANC would like a more patriotic and loyal press and has proposed an investigation into a Media Appeals Tribunal to regulate the press. Recent research by Media Policy and Democracy Project in 2015 found that South Africa does not need a Media Appeals Tribunal (which the ANC desires and which is the biggest political threat the media faces today), as the ANC’s arguments for one are insubstantial; the Press Council is not biased in favour of print media and found instead that 58% of the rulings were in favour of the complainant; and more complaints hailed from the private sector and not from political parties.
One of the most serious issues facing newspapers is the commercial threat – retrenchments, shrinking and juniorised newsrooms are the new norm. But, how does South Africa compare with the global situation where in developed world markets newspapers are on a rapid decline?
South African newspapers appear to be stuck (neither dying rapid deaths nor growing) in the middle of trends of the developed world on the one hand, and the Chinese, Indian and African newspaper markets, on the other, which have witnessed growth.
In the U.S., Britain, Australia and Europe, newspapers have been decimated or are on the decline (those which have survived have adapted to changing conditions) while online journalism grows, and revenues continue to be wobbly.
In South Africa there is a decline (of advertising, sales and newsroom staff) but the rate is nowhere near as steep as the trends in the developed world. We have definitely experienced fast and furious retrenchments in newsrooms (about 1 000 in 2013 and 2014) according to the State of the Newsroom: Disruptions Accelerated publication, due to decreased profits, declining revenue from sales and advertising combined with no business model for online journalism.
What’s the answer?
So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. But newspapers should be experimenting with a variety of strategies to survive.
Newspapers with accurate and ethical journalism, which the public feel they can trust will survive. So, following the new SA Media Code has become more important than ever. We need greater awareness of this in newsrooms.
Newspapers with niche focus areas (rather than broad general topics) are more likely to survive.
Newspapers that learn how to do journalism on different platforms – such as video and social media – will fare better. In other words diversify, and don’t put all the words in one basket.
Newspapers that produce really good analysis with real experts and not just anyone who has an opinion, ought to do well.
Narrative journalism – telling a story rather than shooting off binary oppositions in a “he said, she said” tired old formula – is a skill all journalists should cultivate.
Clearly, nothing is fixed; boundaries are blurry and fluid while norms change as quickly as we write our intros.
So, newspapers have to learn to do the same, to service an ever growing platform-agnostic readership. It really is a case of adapt or die.
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