Transformation is print media’s Achilles heel

2011-10-01 09:22

Newspapers are on the cutting edge of journalism in South Africa.

Most of the really ­significant investigative stories over the past decade have been broken by newspapers.

Furthermore, most of the awards for excellence in journalism have been ­given to newspaper journalists.

These accolades are deserved. The main reason why such journalism has excelled is because the four largestnewspaper groups – Media 24, Independent Newspapers, Caxton and Avusa – have all reinvested in investigative journalism in an attempt to hold on to readers through quality content.

There was a time not so long ago when the industry was in a parlous state.

In the wake of the recession of the 1990s many newsrooms were cut to the bone to save costs. The industry clearly recognised that by rationalising to such an extent it was killing its raison d’être.

South Africans must fight to defend the space for this new wave of investigative journalism.

Sections of the ANC’s leadership are clearly uncomfortable with the scrutiny they are now subjected to. Luckily, newspapers have the Constitution on their side in this fight.

But newspapers have an area of vulnerability that needs urgent ­attention – transformation.The industry’s performance on its BEE scorecards is weak.

In a ­recent parliamentary indaba on transformation in the print media, the industry’s representative body, Print Media South Africa (PMSA), ­admitted to this weakness.

It revealed that the industry was a level-five contributor in terms of the scorecards, below what ­government considers acceptable. While the percentage of black ­editors has increased from 7% in 1994 to 65% this year, the industry has a consolidated black ownership of only 14%.

Two of the four media groups, Caxton and Independent Newspapers, are entirely white-owned, with the latter being foreign-owned.

The PMSA also acknowledged that “management of the print ­media industry is not sufficiently diverse to be completely representative”.

Performance on employment equity targets is below par and skills-development spend falls ­below the code’s target.The industry’s gender statistics are particularly poor.

According to the PMSA, “there are no significant numbers of women in top management and on the boards of the four largest media houses. The actual percentage is low at 4.44%.”

This is a grim picture indeed for the industry. Government could use this poor performance as a ­reason to withdraw advertisements and rather place them in media it considers to be “more transformed” (which could be read as code for more patriotic media).

The newspaper groups are vulnerable to this problem as their advertising spend has dropped from 42% to 33% of total advertising spend from 2004 to this year.

If this happens then the space for investigative journalism could shrink, allowing public and private corruption and mismanagement to flourish.

Given this picture it was not surprising that the loudest laughter during tea and lunch breaks at the transformation indaba came from the head of the Government ­Communication and Information System, Jimmy Manyi.

Needless to say, the scorecards cannot give the whole picture on transformation.

As they are generic measurement tools, they have nothing to say about transformation in the most important areas of the print media’s operations, namely editorial content and audience transformation.

In these ­areas there are strong indications that the industry has transformed significantly since 1994.  Nevertheless, the scorecards are important indicators of the extent to which the industry has deracialised and become more gender representative.

This performance is manna from heaven for the anti-media-freedom current in the ANC’s leadership.

They can argue even more forcefully that media freedom is a self-serving freedom sought by media organisations to make ­profit for a minority at the expense of the rights of broader society and that these are grounds to restrict the media.

By allowing this area of vulnerability to arise the industry’s leadership has failed the industry.

Now journalists are fighting for media freedom with their backs exposed. And only their bosses are to blame.

The industry now faces the ­prospect of transforming under ­extreme political pressure in a conflicted environment, which is risky.

On the level of ownership, newspapers may be damned if they don’t transform and damned if they do.

This is because those empowerment groups with sufficient capital to buy stakes in these groups may have links to the current ruling elite in the ANC, which could ­neutralise the industry.

Media freedom activists have ­also not helped matters either. By focusing on media freedom while failing to do their homework on the transformation question they have also allowed this area of vulnerability to arise unchallenged.

As a Right 2 Know Campaign ­activist noted at a recent meeting: “They (the newspapers) will be coming back to us very soon to defend them, and we will do so, ­although we are not completely happy with them.”

In the long term, public outrage is the most important bulwark against erosions of democratic freedom.

But if there is a significant ­section of the public that does not see itself reflected in the newspaper industry then it is entirely ­possible that they are asking ­themselves: “Why support its freedom in the first place?”

And what happens if they decide not to?

» Professor Duncan is the Highway Africa Chair of the ­Media and Information Society in the School of Journalism and MediaStudies at Rhodes University, Grahamstown

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