As a story about Julius Malema supposedly stepping down as president of the ANC Youth League spread through the news media on Friday, SA's cash-strapped and resource-shy English press showed its readiness to accept Sapa stories as gospel. In the process, they are creating a sea of sameness that’s essentially killing their newspapers. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Late last week the story of Julius Malema’s “decision” to step down as president of the ANC Youth League when his term ends in June 2011 reverberated across the news landscape. The story broke in Beeld and followed the first media conference addressed by Malema since his admonishing by President Jacob Zuma at the ANC national general council in Durban.
“Malema tree gou uit” (Malema to step down soon) declared Beeld, a Naspers title. The story was quickly picked up by The Natal Witness and spotted by the South African Press Association who lifted the story, attributing it to The Witness. Before long the copy was breaking news on TimesLIVE, who later added a question mark when it appeared that the validity of the story was questionable.
From there the story raged like wildfire across Jacaranda 94.2, IOLNews, DispatchOnline, to reach Namibian Sun and a wide range of other titles that embrace Sapa as gospel. As the story spread, no one did what any journalist should do in the face of what would have been one of the biggest news stories of the year. Evidently nobody bothered to pick up a phone to verify whether the report was true. It wasn’t.
The Daily Maverick’s Phillip de Wet was at the same media conference attended by Beeld’s Cobus Coetzee, but didn't tweet or file a story about Malema’s supposed exit. This was because he had interpreted Malema’s answer to a journalist’s question about his term of office as the usual ANC rhetoric heavily spiced with Malema’s own brand of sardonic – and perilous – ambiguity. Nobody else thought it was a story, except Beeld, who in turn created a source of news for Sapa.
“Beeld was the only media who took that angle from the news conference,” says Sapa editor Mark van der Velden, who adds that Sapa was also at the ANCYL media briefing, but didn’t interpret Malema’s answer as news. “Because of the double entendres and implied innuendos which is the way Malema communicates, we covered it from another angle. But the fact that another newspaper decided to take that statement and interpret it as Malema stepping down became newsworthy, and hence we lifted the story from the Witness. The issue of whether Malema said he was going to stand down or not, how the reporter understood it and interpreted it, and deemed it newsworthy enough to write a story about it, that is what becomes news.”
Beeld’s senior assistant editor Gallie van Rensburg, says he’d seen Coetzee’s transcript, and that Coetzee quoted Malema verbatim. “Our reporter quoted Malema literally just as he spoke. He didn’t make any factual mistakes or any factual errors. If the ANCYL says Malema is definitely available for re-election, it’s a completely different impression and we will write a story about that so our readers can be informed. After today’s story our readers will think that Malema is gone after June and apparently he is not, so we will carry that in tomorrow’s paper,” says Van Rensburg, adding that the political double-speak annoys him because not all journalists are fluent in a variety of languages and that this often leads to problems.
Soon after the Malema “step down” story spread, the ANCYL issued a statement dismissing the reports, saying they were wrong and that Malema “never said he will not be available for re-election as president of the ANC Youth League”.
The Malema story raises questions about the way the South African media in particular use Sapa, more specifically the media’s over-reliance on the press agency’s copy. “With ever tighter resources, stressed-out copy tasters and news editors and night editors trying to meet deadlines, if there happens to be a Sapa story sitting on the wires, waiting to be cut and pasted, slotted in, that’s what happens,” says Van der Velden. “It is a cop out to blame news agencies for the bland reproduction of wire agency copy. Editors are often very dishonest with themselves and quick to malign the type of journalism news agencies do. But that kind of basic information is the vital platform of raw information that a lot of other media need. The media should take it as the beginning point for their own more detailed, more qualified, more in-depth reporting.”
Van der Velden describes Sapa as an organisation that lives under the petticoats of local news flow, and sees what others cannot. “You can see when a newspaper has a really energetic day, they will do their own copy, crack their own stories, have a really good day and use very little Sapa. Maybe a couple of days down the line they have a lot of people sick, tired or dispirited because they’ve been told they are not getting a raise, and they have what I call very crudely an ‘Ag fuck it, let’s take Sapa day’. You can see it.”
The problem is that with scarce resources, an unrelenting news cycle and the lure of big breaking stories, the “Ag fuck it, let’s take Sapa” days are increasing year on year. “We’ve been witnessing a trend toward the increased reliance on Sapa during the last seven to eight years,” says Wadim Schreiner, managing director of content analysis firm Media Tenor. “If you look at the past couple of years the percentage of information that is attributed by the English press in particular to Sapa is on the rise. It is a reaction to a cost-cutting mechanism. If you look at the Afrikaans versus English reliance on Sapa, the Afrikaans press would apparently not appear to use Sapa a lot.”
Schreiner attributes this to the cost of translation, but also to the vast ownership of titles by Naspers that create a ready flow of stories within the group. “The Afrikaans press is predominantly owned by Naspers which has a huge network, meaning the group is able to draw on information and stories across the network. Stories at one news title can be used to cross-subsidise all the other titles, which diminishes the need for agency copy.”
Media Tenor’s research on Sapa usage at press titles shows some English titles rely heavily on the agency. Sapa copy makes up a third of all stories at The Witness and Daily Dispatch. At The Citizen, Daily Sun, The Herald, Sunday World, Pretoria News, The Star, Sowetan, Saturday Star and Cape Times the use of Sapa is well into double digits.
And the news from the Audit Bureau of Circulation is not good for the English press either. ABC figures reflect that the total circulation for the daily press is in steady decline. There was a further 6.66% drop off in sales (106,000 copies) when the bureau’s second-quarter results for 2010 were released and compared to 2009. Subscription sales were marginally up, copy sales marginally down, while Afrikaans and vernacular papers fared much better than English titles. ABC’s Gordon Patterson says Afrikaans and vernacular daily newspapers produced more stable results with smaller declines, while English titles in general declined sharply. “Titles that continue to serve their readers are growing in real circulation, whereas titles that print articles and expect people to buy them are struggling,” says Patterson. “The real threat to print continues to be retaining relevance to readers. Without this, circulation will decline and advertising revenues will migrate.”
The homogeny of news and lack of differentiation in English titles is what’s killing them according to Patterson and Schreiner. “The English media in general and the Independent News Group in particular, don’t provide news or information that is differentiated. If you look at the Pretoria News and compare this with The Star, and then again with The Daily News, the stories are virtually identical. What the English press is trying to do is move away from serving a niche to create something for the masses. The reason why the Afrikaans press is faring quite well is that they have a defined, very clear niche that they address because they essentially represent a minority language. They have to be absolutely relevant to the audience they are speaking to, otherwise their days will be numbered. The Afrikaans media are exceptionally smart, they know their audience, they know what their audience wants and they deliver content the audience wants, and because of that they remain relevant. The problem with English newspapers is that they are losing relevance.”
Speaking to Sapa’s Van der Velden it’s evident that English titles have forgotten the press agency’s role. “Sapa is not just a source of news, it is a source of checking news, testing and comparing your own diary priorities for the day with what Sapa reckons are the priorities. Sapa carries a multitude of functions, and it does happen that reporters are bloody lazy and should be shot through the head sometimes for plagiarising Sapa copy, because that is not what they are paid to do. If a newspaper wants to use Sapa copy they should do so and deploy their reporter somewhere else to go and do stories for which they are paid. But that is part of the abuse of wire services around the world.”
Despite dipping heavily into Sapa, few journalists know where the agency comes from, who owns it and how it functions. Founded in 1938 from Reuters South Africa at a time when stories could take up to six weeks to reach South Africa from London by ship, Sapa was the result of English and Afrikaans press proprietors coming together to save money. “They got together to start their own domestic agency in South Africa rather than be dependent on Fleet Street decisions on what the local news flow should be through Reuters.” Sapa was formed as a non-profit news agency to serve its members and the interests of the general public. Its mandate is to report and distribute independent, unbiased, neutral and balanced news in the interest of the public and to serve the news brands that own it and subscribe to it.
“The newspapers collectively own Sapa and are called members. It has evolved over the years as the newspapers coalesced into the various groups,” says Van der Velden. “Today newspaper titles that are members of Sapa are owned within the four major groups namely Caxton, Media24 (Naspers), Avusa and Independent.” The big four own Sapa in equal parts and sit on Sapa’s board, says Van der Velden.
“Basically our job is to gather, process and distribute a neutral flow of news which is, hopefully, facts only. It is one of those very fine, highfalutin objectives, but in the day-to-day process it is not quite so neat and clean, obviously. Like any other media we get things wrong, we make mistakes, but they are not deliberate.” Sapa has a strict philosophy for mistakes, which ranges from updating copy on the run in a news cycle, right through to killing a story and the obligatory printing of retractions through its members and subscribers.
“The other day we had an issue where the spell check was a disaster. It was the Steve Hofmeyr story on the media appeals tribunal. We had the word ‘fascism’ and it was correctly input as fascism, and somehow the system picked it up and emended it as ‘racism’. We then issued a repeated correction and made it quite clear that we were fixing the word, and changing it from racism to fascism.
“If it is a relatively fresh mistake that we can still fix it in time for our subscribers to take it on board then we will issue the correction. If it is a gross mistake, our benchmark is that it would be grossly against the interests of the public, grossly embarrassing for Sapa and materially damaging for our subscribers if they used that story, we have in our style ops guide something called ‘Kill... kill, kill, kill’. As embarrassing as it is, we issue a note on our wires saying to our subscribers: ‘Kill, kill, kill’. This means the item is not to be used and is withdrawn.”
Van der Velden says in the old days the wire service used to have bells on them and when a story was killed, bells used to ring in newsrooms across the country. Did the bells ring last week when the story of Malema stepping down hit newsrooms across the country? Not a chance.
Perhaps it was the lure of the big story or perhaps being a Friday it was an “Ag fuck it, let’s take Sapa” day. But everyone who used the story did so believing it was the gospel according to Sapa and didn’t check whether it was true or not. Perhaps they just wished it was true. DM