Lizette Rabe

Viva the new media!

2006-09-29 11:49

It's maybe appropriate to end this series of columns with that much talked about story in a 160 year old weekly in the form of a newsmagazine that quaintly calls itself a newspaper. I'm referring of course to The Economist.

In its recent Who killed the newspaper? edition it starts its leader with a quote that has also - of course not incidentally - been quoted in this column before: "a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself".

That was said when newspapers were still regarded as setting the public agenda. Since then there was a media revolution. We live in a media-saturated world. And instead of lamenting - and wasting time - musing over who killed the newspaper, let's rather focus on an adaptation of the above quotation.

One that, maybe, could read: good media is a nation talking to itself.

The media's public role should never disappear, despite the onslaught of the bottom line, and the commercial imperative eroding the walls of the Fourth Estate. Rather look at ways of improving that role, irrespective of how it is "mediated" to the world.

It is, after all, not about the medium. It's about the message. The handbook example refers to the demise of the American railways: its bosses thought it was about railroads and wagons. When it really was about transport.

So, what to do?

The Economist refers to newspapers as the "most useful bit of the media". Being a digital citizen, one can doubt the validity of that statement. Isn't new media infinitely more useful, also from a commercial point of view?

But a column, as always, does not allow the luxury of unpacking each argument.

So, stick to the main one. Which is: yes, it is regrettable that newspapers are on the decline. It's also the case in South Africa, where established titles are struggling. However, we are one of the exceptions in the world. Our total circulation for newspapers is growing, due to the rise and rise of pulp journalism. How that contributes to a nation in conversation with itself, one shudders to contemplate.

But, again, let's not digress.

Of course it will be a sad day if our serious newspapers fold.

How can it be avoided?

The easy answer is to think new about the role of print in our digitised world.

How new?

Completely new.

Discard the old

Discard the old paradigms. Amongst others, that sorrowful chauvinistic complacency that characterises both our newsrooms and our boardrooms.

It was intriguing that The Economist's illustration depicts a man reading a newspaper on the edge of an abyss. Indeed the key to understand this sad state of affairs. Women, literally, are not part of the picture.

So, maybe one route to take is to explore a new world - one in which women also inhibit the earth.

And a route, please, not to take: irrespective of how desperate print becomes, please do not save it by emulating the crude and the crass and the banal and the bizarre of the tabloids.

Hopefully media evolution will swiftly catapult these products out of their Stone Age of Tabloids. And hopefully the tabloid versions of Neanderthal Man will evolve with them.

If tabloids do not transcend themselves beyond cheap stereotyping and sensationalism, they cannot hope to evolve into newspapers - or being taken seriously.

To prove the point: analyse the tabloid posters. One sometimes wonders: what do innocent visitors to our shores make of our society if they have to assess us according to those posters?

Of course tabloids can be people's papers. Certainly in numbers they already are. But if they continue to insult, instead of empower, they will never realise their magnificent potential.

Question is: will chauvinistic complacency also ruin that?

Because: no one is killing newspapers. Newspapers are doing it themselves. Until male media decision makers, in a hegemonic male media world, wake up, a newspaper-less future may come true.

So, to end off: in these exciting times of our politics heating up ahead of the next elections and the power games steaming ahead, we need more diligent, watchful journalists.

In these exciting times of exploding niche markets, of citizen journalism, of being a technocratic society living in a connected world, of clashes of civilisations, and geopolitical jungles that journalists have to explore, we need journalists who can make sense of the non-sense around us.

In these exciting times, we need journalists who are more professional than ever before.

That's the issue we need to debate. Not which media will survive. But how the constituency of the Fourth Estate is served.

Instead of adieu newspapers, how about viva the media, viva journalism?

It's been almost two years that this column on the media has incited and excited her readers on a weekly basis. Good media indeed is a nation in conversation with itself. So here's to a roaring conversation. Cheers!

PS: Oh yes, one last thought. If an unfettered media is important to you, join the ranks of Sanef and other media freedom watchdogs on 18 October at 08:00 in front of the Parliament to protest against the proposed amendments of the Film and Publications Act.

  • Lizette Rabe is head of the postgraduate Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch, a Sanef council member and Sanef-convenor for the Western Cape. And she's addicted to news.

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