Media job losses not just a sector problem, but a social problem - Wits prof Anton Harber

Media academic Professor Anton Harber said media job losses are a social problem.
Media academic Professor Anton Harber said media job losses are a social problem.
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  • Media academic Professor Anton Harber said the effect of major media job losses was not just a problem for the sector, but for society.
  • He said the media was more important than ever for the flow of information.
  • He called on media owners and society to come up with better ways to arrest the decline.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the slashing of jobs in the South African media industry and worse seems yet to come, according to Wits journalism professor Anton Harber.

Shrinking newsrooms and the loss of titles did not provide good news at a time when the flow of reliable information and debate was more important than ever, he said on Wednesday.

He was delivering the Barry Streek Memorial Lecture, titled 'Journalism in a time of crises', to the Cape Town Press Club.

This year has seen the closure of Associated Media Publishing, as well as the closure of five magazines and two newspapers belonging to Media24, as the Covid-19 lockdown takes its toll on circulation.

READ | Media24 CEO confident of future of media, despite closure of publications

Caxton and CTP Publishers & Printers, meanwhile, announced that it had begun the process of withdrawing from magazine publishing, although Living & Loving and Farmer's Weekly may be accommodated elsewhere in its stable, according to Fin24.

Broadcasters, such as SABC and Primedia, have also indicated recently that job cuts may be on the cards as industries struggle economically.

Harber was critical of what he deemed a short-term cost-cutting approach, though he believed there were pockets of hope.

These included the rise of fact-checking organisations and small, specialist non-profit media groups filling some of the gaps in traditional media coverage.

"We need to get our country to recognise that the state of media is not just a sectoral problem, but a social problem, a national problem, and one we need to address on a much larger scale," he said.

"We need to pull together the best minds of the country to find a way to enable journalists to continue their important work".

He was sceptical, though, about the ability to turn around the industry, claiming media owners were "failing".

"I am sorry to say that I have largely lost faith in the capacity of our South African media owners to show the kind of wisdom, flexibility, innovation, courage and commitment to do what has to be done to turn our industry around," said Harber.

"Sadly, our ownership is dominated by short-term cost-cutters, who seem to serve themselves rather than the public.

"Where we need vision, we have myopia".

There was a greater hunger than ever for quality content and people were prepared to pay for it in one form or another.

It seemed paywalls and subscriptions were the way to go, but it was hard to predict how the industry might look in a few years' time, he said.

Harber said the flow of information was too important to democracy and the economy, which is why it couldn't be left to the market and existing industry to sort out.

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