OPINION | Black Tuesday showed saving journalism is more necessary than ever


Media24 is the third media company to announce its print media can no longer withstand the pressures of our time. What does this mean for us as news consumers? More so: For a democracy, asks Lizette Rabe.

It is as if our Western languages must turn to the Germanic version when primal existential crises strike us.

For instance, Angst is just so much more frightening than anxiety. And Zeitgeist so much more impressive than just the spirit of our time. And now: Zeitwende. A revolution in time – that we are, in fact, experiencing a turning point in modern history.

This was emphasised by the announcement by South Africa's largest media company that some of its titles – some iconic heritage titles – could not withstand the pressures of our time anymore. Some would be stopped altogether, others' frequency reduced and will be editorially outsourced, others will be digital-only publications.

No wonder it feels as if Angst, Zeitgeist and Zeitwende have all been mixed together and that concoction is dragging us down in a maelstrom; that we are experiencing an existential crisis of unimaginable magnitude. What next, if even that rock on the horizon, Media24, capitulated?

But, actually, we knew it was just a matter of time.

The question was not if, but when, that announcement would come.

Magazine closures 

After all, just days before 2020's World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, media icon Jane Raphaely's Associated Media Publishing announced they were closing their doors. Just two days after World Press Freedom Day, another iconic publisher, Caxton, announced it was closing most of its titles.

And now follows Media24's announcement of how it intends to restructure its print media. And it's not because of the past few Covid-19 months, it's been on its way since the digital revolution began.

And 7 July 2020 was the day.

Henceforth, maybe known as Black Tuesday in terms of shock value, following 1977's Black Wednesday when newspapers were closed under the censorship of the apartheid government.

The difference now is that it is not the government, but the digital revolution, plus Covid-19, that caused the shock wave in media circles. And as an ex-colleague wrote from the salt mines of the news office: It's blood on the walls.

The distress, sadness, and, yes, tears, rippled wave after wave across my computer screen.

Surely, there is no profession where there is greater camaraderie than in journalism.

Journalists, having been through the purgatory of the night office and never-ending deadlines, are like blood relatives.

Death bell

That is why we, who once worked in Media24 Centre (also known as the Mothership), feel as if the death bell has been ringing for us too.

More than 500 positions are affected with the restructuring. Or, if existing vacancies are included, 660 jobs. Add that to the estimated 700 positions that were lost with the previous two media houses' announcements and the approximately 80 publications that were closed in April and May.

Possible retrenchments at the SABC – affecting up to 600 jobs – are also already on the cards.

And yet, in a time of the virus, and especially in a time of fake news, we need the news media more than ever before.

The National Editors' Forum, Sanef, also highlighted how access to news portals spiked following the outbreak of the pandemic.

Media24's statement also referred to the growth in its digital platforms.

News24 had an average of 1.6 million daily unique users – already a 63% growth on the 2019 average.

By the end of June, Netwerk24 had almost 67 000 subscribers – 36.5% more than June 2019.

The so-called Windhoek Declaration on media freedom, which formed the basis for UNESCO's declaration of 3 May as World Press Freedom Day, highlights a diversity and plurality of voices. Simply put: The more voices are heard on issues of the day, the better for a democracy. Plus: Without a free media, there is no democracy.

There may still be corruption, but a diverse media sector will shed light on all the cracks in our society. Indeed, it is precisely because of investigative journalism that we are not deeper in the swamp of state capture than we are.

The crisis due to the coronavirus was only the last nail in the coffin; the patient was already in intensive care.

Digital revolution

The digital revolution has long caused the print media model to stop working. And the digital media model is still not working, and may perhaps never work, as the public has grown accustomed to receiving their news for free.

But that's where a Zeitwende must also happen. You do not get free services elsewhere. You cannot go to a doctor without paying; nor walk out of a supermarket with a free basket of goods. The same should be applied for quality journalism.

And that's the irony: While professional journalism is more necessary than ever, news offices are scaling down everywhere. In addition, the so-called "Fourth Estate" – the news media – is especially needed at a time when fake news is thriving.

Therefore: It remains heartbreaking to hear how many titles, and some heritage titles, are affected.

But it was just unrealistic to expect "business as usual"; it was only a matter of time.

Still, that an iconic title like Drum is only going to survive as a digital magazine remains a blow ... It must be bitter for all those who have fought for decades for the magazine's survival, with its legacy of the "Drum generation" of journalists, from Lewis Nkosi to Nat Nakasa, after whom Sanef's award for courageous journalism was named.

Quality news media – in other words, professional, verified and independent information – is more important than ever. And that's what needs to be saved.

Even before South Africa's first democratic election in April 1994, Nelson Mandela, then not yet president, said in February that year at the opening of the International Press Institute's conference in Cape Town:

"A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy… It must enjoy the protection of the Constitution so that it can protect our rights as citizens. It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen … It is only such a free press that can have the capacity to relentlessly expose excesses and corruption on the part of the government, state officials and other institutions that hold power."

Journalism is the lifeblood of a democracy.

I have no doubt that Media24, with its heritage, will also do everything in its power to fulfil that social contract with the South African public.

And now for the good news: Covid-19 has made digital a way of life, from e-meetings to e-classrooms.

Now we, as the public, must also do our part and support professional digital news media with subscriptions.

Because just as there is nothing like free services elsewhere, we, as the public, should also realise quality news does not come for free and be prepared to make a contribution to ensure that quality news can thrive.

So, yes, we are experiencing a Zeitwende, in so many ways.

It is a time to mourn. That's how it should be. But then the time must also come, and soon, for us to come up with innovative and entrepreneurial digital media models.

Journalists are specialists who collect information, who know how to do it independently, without fear or favour, verify it, and ensure that it complies with the ethical guidelines of the South African Press Code.

And all those journalists now retrenched should know that they are such information specialists – information that empowers a public, in whatever way, whether with information on the corona crisis, or corruption. And, with their work, deepen a healthy democracy.

You and I, as the public, can make a contribution to ensure the lifeblood of a democracy can be sustained.

Subscribe to a digital news service. Save journalism.

Lizette Rabe is professor in journalism at Stellenbosch University. Before joining academia, she was editor of the Afrikaans women's glossy Sarie.

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