OPINION | Journalism is critical to our understanding of the world but is also under threat

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Nicole Fritz writes while news agencies have to find ways to survive the downturn in the industry, she is concerned about the news divide.


If, as it is said, journalism represents the first draft of history, then in these sometimes apocalyptic-seeming times it's hard not to worry the first draft is all there will ever be: that we won't get the time for the draft to ever actually settle into history.

Even if that is an entirely pessimistic assessment of humanity's future, still the significance of unfolding events around the globe make journalism - the production and presentation of news and information - critical to our understanding of, and ability to navigate this time.

READ | Primedia starts retrenchment process as Covid-19 continues to shake up media

Paradoxically, the production and presentation of news and information has seldom seemed more under threat.

Here in South Africa, since the start of lockdown, we have seen a virtual cratering of the media industry.

Primedia is the only the most recent media company to announce restructuring and retrenchment of staff. Media24's proposed restructuring is anticipated to cost more than 500 staff their jobs. Association Media Publishing has shut its doors as well as Caxton and CTP Publishers and Printers have withdrawn from magazine publishing. Staff at several other media companies has been forced to take salary cuts.

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The pandemic has only accelerated a death spiral, precipitously driving down advertising revenue and circulation numbers. If South Africa's dire economic situation makes its media industry particularly vulnerable, still it is a phenomenon seen across the world.

In a news article titled Coronavirus rips a hole in newspapers' business model (25 June), the Financial Times (FT) estimates at least 38 000 media workers, from journalists to commercial staff, have been furloughed, laid off or taken pay cuts in the US since March, and it reports as many as a third of UK journalism jobs are at risk.

Decline 

The news industry has been in decline for some time with almost a half of US newsroom jobs lost since 2008. As the FT recounts, newspapers and magazines accounted for half of all advertising spending worldwide in 2000. Less than two decades later, their share of that spend represents only 10%: giant tech platforms Facebook and Google are gobbling up the lion's share.

With a decline in advertising, media companies have had to look to other models of generating revenue - principally through subscription-based services. But there is the difficulty that subscription-based revenue is not necessarily sufficient by itself to sustain large, complex media companies.

There is also concern for the news divide that will and is resulting between an "elite paying audience which is well-served but small, and a broader public that relies on publishers who are trying to monetise web traffic but may struggle to report local news in depth".

Perhaps the biggest danger, however, is neither model - monetising web traffic or a subscription-based service - best supports the work of news production in the wider public interest. In the former, stories of the type of Kanye West's bid for US presidential nomination are going to be offered ahead of any deep dive into the interstices of the Prasa tender process.

But it's not clear a news creation and dissemination model reliant on payment by a more affluent, often quite partisan slice of the population will do much better in reporting news of pertinence to the broader community and particularly marginalised communities.

Neither model is best placed to address, far less ameliorate, an intensely and increasingly polarised world. The New York Times, one of the few media companies bucking the trend of media industry collapse, added 587 000 digital subscribers in the first quarter of 2020. It is part of the premium media club, including the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Financial Times, which each has more than one million digital subscribers.

Production of news is imperilled

But it is not hard to see, given its traditional readership base, how the New York Times got it entirely wrong about the prospects of Donald Trump's election. In getting it wrong, it did not just fail its readership in conditioning false expectations of the presidential election's results. In miscalculating Trump's prospects and in projecting his election as an outlier, it arguably contributed to voter apathy and a failure to turn out at the polls.

It is tragedy that at this time of fearsome uncertainty, when credible information and the ability to make sense of and expertly interrogate that information couldn't be more highly prized, that the production of news and its profession is so imperilled.

It is sadder still that in their quest for continued survival, news organisations are contenting themselves largely with models that in their very genesis seem likely to obscure rather than make visible large swathes of the news.

- Nicole Fitz is the CEO of Freedom Under Law.

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