OPINION | The future of journalism in South Africa: Through the rear-view mirror towards the windscreen

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Covid-19 has put pressure on SA media companies.
Covid-19 has put pressure on SA media companies.
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If the media is going to survive the current threats, journalists need to be more accountable, writes Thulasizwe Simelane. 


I glance at the rear-view mirror and catch glimpses of the glory of days gone by.

This view is breathtaking. It is the "God’s Window" view of the legacy of journalism in this country.

As one does when visiting the actual wonder known as God’s Window in Mpumalanga, I want to linger here a little longer, soak in the journalistic gene pool from which I and other professionals in the sector have sprung.

Without straining my vision, I can see vividly, in the not-so-distant rear view, those muckraking crusaders of this hallowed publication, the aptly-named dung-beetles, and the mavericks in many other print, digital and broadcast newsrooms.

They’re pouring over a trove of emails linked to that infamous family that used to live in Saxonwold.

They don’t know it yet, but they’re waist-deep in history-bending work. Call it democratic South Africa’s "Watergate" if you will. The scandal that would define a presidency and hasten a president’s downfall.

Journalistic heritage

I adjust my rear-view mirror slightly, I see Mandy Rossouw (may her soul rest in peace). Fearless, enterprising, with the instinct of a shark in waters where there is the minutest of droplets of blood. How else do you explain going to Nkandla for a mundane story about how the then-president’s village neighbours felt about having him as one of them, and returning with what turned out to be a story of decadence of grotesque proportions? What we used to call during my student days, a 'holy-sh*t story"!

As I focus my rear-view mirror further, I see them, cohorts upon cohorts of what we affectionately call "the noble profession".  A long line of a rich and proud journalistic heritage. The dog-with-a-bone scribes of the past few decades.

I see Greg Marinovich, with his lens, insisting what happened in Marikana wasn’t "the best of responsible policing" as the police commissioner at the time would have us believe. It was murder on a horrifying scale.

I see them, the late ferreters of graft of the mid-90s; insisting against the push-back of the era’s thin-skinned political top brass, that the purchase of naval and airforce equipment wasn’t as squeaky clean as presented. I see Dinkie Mkhize and other lensmen of the early 90s, criss-crossing enemy lines in the killing fields of Thokoza and Katlehong. Because history can’t have blank pages, even if it meant they were to risk their lives filling those pages.

I see the Rand Daily Mail’s (then much more sensible) Helen Zille and the Daily Dispatch’s Donald Woods, insisting Steve Biko didn’t die during a hunger strike, but was tortured to death. There’s Sam Nzima stuffing his roll of film in his sock, to avoid it being confiscated by apartheid police. Because the veil of feigned ignorance around the world, about apartheid’s evils, had to be shattered with the conscience-gnawing visual evidence that "Pretoria butchers children. Here's one of them; Hector Pieterson"!

Oh, I see – Henry Nxumalo, Mr Drum, escaping in the middle of the night from the potato farms of Bethal, after spending a few days undercover, working as a labourer, itching to confront the conscience of even the manifestly unjust society of the fifties, with the slave-like working conditions in those plantations.

But sweet as this nostalgia is, I have to snap out it, and turn my gaze from the rear-view mirror to the windscreen in front of me.

And what I see there, has my stomach in knots. It fills me with dread.

For starters, let there be no doubt, I don’t buy into the notion that journalism is dead or dying. The need for communication, knowledge and information is too intricately woven into what it means to be liberty-loving, dignity-endowed human beings, for this profession to die.

It is however, facing grave threats, and they’re not in the form we had anticipated a few decades ago.

Financial implications 

The lastest (but by no-means the only) manifestations of these threats have come in the form of the financial monkey-wrench-squeeze of the lockdown. It’s had a devastating effect on the print media in particular, but the broadcast media hasn’t been spared either. The magazine publishing industry has been disfigured, perhaps long-term if not permanently, with the closure of at least two publishing houses.

Several legendary titles, including Henry Nxumalo’s bequest, Drum have had to morph into digital-only publications. A recent Sanef study found that workers at the so-called big-four print media houses have had to take massive salary cuts and anything between 300 and 400 journalists have lost their jobs. Freelancers are going hungry, with the editors body scrambling for relief funding.

It is, of course ironic that all of this happens when research shows there’s been a spike in demand for accurate and credible news, during this era of uncertainty and fake news.

So, how do we soldier on, wounded as we are, as a profession? For starters, at the structural, business-of-journalism level, adaptation is being forced upon us by the objective reality that the people who used to buy the Daily Sun for R2, through the window of the taxi before leaving Noord Street taxi rank, now scroll up and down on Twitter and Facebook on their phones, click "like" or open news articles that pique their interest.

Our challenge is to adapt to the fact that, not unlike the international space station hurtling at 766km per second, things in the digital space move at a mind-numbing speed. While rightly insisting on accuracy and professional due diligence will stand us in good stead in this space, we must be mindful of attention span challenges and adapt accordingly.

It’s also time to move from lamenting the difficulties of "monetising" eyeball activity online, to confronting the question; what is to be done? This will require innovative thinking around the paywalls that many readers find off-putting, as well as tailor-making "in-your-mentions" content. This in turn has implications for all of us; from the skills set the student entering journalism school acquires, to the industry’s "old-dogs" like me who have no choice but to learn new tricks, to the CEOs in the boardrooms. It’s literally a case of adapt or perish!

But lastly, it behoves me to appeal to the moral and ethical code that’s served this profession well for generations. Let’s be honest, the amplifying questions about our credibility and trust issues many in our society have with us as a profession, are sometimes, but not always baseless.

Self-introspection 

Our integrity has been undermined by the abuse of platforms to serve our personal and sometimes political and even commercial interests. While we’ve rightly insisted on self-regulation, one gets the feeling that in the name of guarding against being seen to be bowing to exogenous pressures, we have tended to be tolerant to those media trainer Themba Sepotokele has called 'charlatans' in our profession.

Too often, some amongst us are caught up in political agendas, and what’s meant to be a China wall between shareholders and owners’ commercial imperatives and a newsroom’s editorial endeavours, has been more like the Zimbabwe-SA border fence... porous, compromised! And commercial and structural pressures mean newsrooms are spread thin, with little training and specialisation and yes, juniorisation; much-needed youthful energy, without the guidance and moulding of experienced editors.  (many of whom have left the profession to earn a living as spin doctors).

I suspect the route to future-proofing the profession goes via this "narrow and difficult path" of deep self-introspection and uncomfortable conversations amongst ourselves. But openness and transparency in it all will be key. Because far from asking South Africans to blindly support our industry because we tag ourselves as "the noble profession", I am for a culture of accountability to a public that understands that letting journalism die is not an option.

Let me leave you with these lengthy, but worthwhile and profound words from our apex court in the Holomisa judgment. They sum up the point for me so well, such that all I need do is place a full stop at the end of the quote, to align myself with it;

"In a democratic society, then, the mass media play a role of undeniable importance. They bear an obligation to provide citizens both with information and with a platform for the exchange of ideas which is crucial to the development of a democratic culture. As primary agents of the dissemination of information and ideas, they are, inevitably, extremely powerful institutions in a democracy and they have a constitutional duty to act with vigour, courage, integrity and responsibility. The manner in which the media carry out their constitutional mandate will have a significant impact on the development of our democratic society. If the media are scrupulous and reliable in the performance of their constitutional obligations, they will invigorate and strengthen our fledgling democracy. If they vacillate in the performance of their duties, the constitutional goals will be imperiled." 

- Thulasizwe Simelane is an anchor at eNCA and writes in his personal capacity.


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