The journalism crisis

2009-10-19 00:00

THE South African media commemorates “Black Wednesday” today. It’s the anniversary of Wednesday, October 19, 1977, the day that saw major newspapers the World, Weekend World and the Christian publication Pro Veritas banned. On the same day scores of activists and journalists were detained. For those who were around at the time, being a journalist was, as one editor said, walking through a minefield blindfolded.

In an interview a few years back, veteran newsman Thami Mazwai told journalism professor Guy Berger about the events of the day. He was doing interviews in Soweto when he learnt of the arrest of some prominent community figures. He phoned the office and he recalls: “My news editor, Joe Latakgomo, said: ‘Come back, we no longer have a newspaper’. It hit me like a sledgehammer. It was unbelievable. At the office people were milling around, one could not comprehend the situation. Later in the day, the police came to take our editor Percy Qoboza. That was the climax.”

These days journalists find themselves under an economic sledgehammer rather than a political one. It is not to say that the threat of political control no longer exists. In a fledgling democracy like South Africa it is always looming in the background.

However, with newspaper readership falling, advertising revenue in decline and competition from the Internet, media owners are re-examining their business models and this has resulted in drastic cost-cutting measures. Worldwide there have been large-scale retrenchments and many journalists have left the profession. As one commentator said, “With the crisis, we see editors and journalists who know city government, who understand state legislature, who live and breathe public policy, leaving the industry in record numbers. Twenty years from now we will look back on this era and ask ourselves how it is that we let so much intellectual capital and institutional knowledge walk out the door.”

The anniversary of Black Wednesday seems an appropriate occasion to reflect on the state of journalism. If the truth be told, for many of us in newsrooms today it is this, rather than world affairs, that keeps us preoccupied. The conversation around the water cooler is about whether we will still have our jobs tomorrow.

With revised business models, will there be space in newsrooms for senior journalists rather than junior reporters, and how can we be creative in this crisis?

More importantly, how do we keep alive the role of the media in a democracy? Veteran journalist John Pilger was once asked if journalism matters. “Yes,” he replied, because “embodied in journalism are basic freedoms — freedom of speech and the right to know. Without that power, that information, there can be no participation that we call democracy. Our lives are dominated by the insidious propaganda of authority; journalism ought to be an antidote. We are truly the agents of people.”

All of this sounds like navel-gazing, but as one of my editors once said, journalism is about having a conversation with your community. It is important to have this conversation because at the heart of what informs the way forward is what readers want.

The debate has been aired in the pages of Business Day in the past week. Commentator Eusebius McKaiser laments the dumbing down of news, saying readers expect better. “Journalists should start to read more widely and do better primary research. The pressure of deadlines is real, but is no excuse for not reading widely and thinking hard. The road to journalistic excellence is necessarily tough,” he says.

Former New Yorker editor Tina Brown, who left print journalism to launch a website, The Daily Beast, is quoted in Friday’s Business Day as saying the problems of traditional media are as much to do with “self-inflicted damage” stemming from “corporate greed” as with competition from the Internet. She warns that “big companies are cutting editorial costs to get greater returns. The product becomes an empty shell and readers drift away.”

On the anniversary of Black Wednesday, it seems that journalists today can bemoan their lot and get dragged down by the crisis or, like their predecessors, strengthen their resolve and face the challenges head-on.

The debate is also occupying democracy think-tanks, one that asks how a vital public institution like the fourth estate can be kept safe from the ups and downs of the economy.

Private philanthropy enterprises are coming to the fore in support of initiatives involving investigative journalism and hard-hitting political websites. Closer to home there is HealthE news.

Managers working on media business models may perceive older journalists as dinosaurs inhabiting their newsrooms, but there is life in some of us yet.

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