From those fabulous folks who bring you the broadsheets comes the news that the more things stay the same, the more they stay the same. MANDY DE WAAL takes a look at the print media sector’s efforts to transform itself.
Watching print media in South Africa engage with transformation is pretty much like witnessing an unwilling schoolboy being hauled off to the principal’s office, screaming and resisting every step of the way.
In September 2011, government convened a Parliamentary Print Media Transformation Indaba to engage stakeholders in the sector as a consultative means of realising revision in an industry that the state views as being too pale, and too male.
Understandably the Indaba came during a time of extremely hostile relations between print media in South Africa and its government. The ANC was waving its fist at the press, and using the threat of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal to get print media to right itself or to be fixed by the state. The secrecy bill was being barrelled through parliament, in what the media saw as yet another assault on media freedom.
The result was that local print media mostly shunned the Indaba, conflating the issue of press freedom with media transformation. Citing the initiative as yet another attempt to curtail a free press, they stayed away.
The ANC is insistent on press transformation – it was a major theme that was brandished during the ruling party’s 2007 Polokwane conference and Mangaung brought the realisation that not much had changed in five years. At the transformation Indaba, the Parliamentary Committee dealing with press transformation noted that the average black ownership of SA media was set at 14% in 2011, while female representation at board level was only 4.44%.
The ANC isn’t the only body that thinks print media is untransformed, and the debate on press transformation is one that has raged since the birth of SA’s democracy. In November 1998 the Human Rights Commission of SA launched an investigation of racism in the media after complaints were brought to it by the Black Lawyers Association (BLA) and Association of Black Accountants of South Africa (Abasa).
These complaints dealt with content, rather than the structure of the press, but alleged that the Mail & Guardian was racist in the manner in which it exposed corruption; accused The Sunday Times of trivialising the death of black people by reducing them to mere statistics, whilst dealing with white deaths in great detail and in a way that evoked sympathy. The two bodies also laid charges against David Bullard for his notorious column in which both associations said he ridiculed victims of slave trade.
The HRC hearings were followed by ongoing debate about race and transformation in the local print media, which in many ways culminated with the Polokwane declaration on the media which in no uncertain terms showed that the ruling party was going to drag the industry through transformation one way or another. Print and Digital Media South Africa - which represents about 700 titles in the sector - finally responded to decades of debate in September 2012 when it launched a PDMSA Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT).
PDMSA’s reasons for creating this task team, headed by former activist and Robben Island prisoner-cum-advertising heavyweight, Nkwenkwe Nkomo? “From the Human Rights Commission investigation into racism in the media, to the recent interactions between Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communications, the accusation against print media in particular was that it was untransformed, did not reflect the diversity of SA voices, especially the rural and the poor, and was white-dominated both in ownership and issues covered. Further accusations have been of cartel-like behaviour where emergent community and small privately owned media were smothered through a variety of anti-competitive behaviour,” the print media association said in a statement.
Nkomo is a smart choice to head the task team. One of the ‘SASO Nine’, Nkomo was a founder of the South African Students' Organisation, together with the father of SA’s Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko. Nkomo is deeply respected in the advertising and media sector, where he grew in stature significantly after being brought into the industry as a copywriter by Len van Zyl. Today Nkomo is group executive chair of Draftfcb SA, chair of the Association for Communication and Advertising and has won numerous lifetime achievement awards.
Other task team members include NUMSA chief economist, Neo Bodibe; Mail & Guardian publisher, Anastacia Martin; Jan Malherbe, formerly the CEO of Media24 newspapers but now a director at Media Capital; Independent Communications Authority of SA councillor Nomvuyiso Batyi; empowerment and transformation consultant Duma Gqubule; and Nixon Kariithi, an academic and expert on media economics.
“We’ve just come out of the first stage of the public hearings which were held in KwaZulu-Natal, East London, Tzaneen (and) Johannesburg and have spoken to quite a few of the owners of independent papers and other stakeholders like the Competition Commission, the South African National Editors' Forum, the Association of Independent Publishers, MDDA, the Right2Know, Capro, and Media Monitoring Africa. We also heard from the PAC and got a written submission from the DA,” Bodibe told Daily Maverick.
“They gave us their opinions about what transformation was needed, and offered suggestions about how to get there. We also asked for specific information from the press including Avusa, Naspers, Caxton, The New Age, Mail & Guardian and others. What we wanted was their BEE report as well as more information on their ownership, training and employee figures,” she said.
Big action is expected during the second round of hearings which will see the ANC and the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) giving their submissions. Bodibe said that the task team would then deliberate and offer a report to PDMSA by the end of April, and that it would “be up to the PDMSA to decide what to do with that report.” The PDMSA has indicated that this report would form “the blueprint for transformation of print and digital media in the country” and that the task team’s mandate is to create a common vision and strategy for transformation. That’s going to be a tough task.
Caxton withdrew from the process before it had even got underway. Task team project manager, Mathatha Tsedu, told The Media Online: “As a result of the Competition Commission investigation, Caxton has pulled out of involvement with the work of the task team as they feel participation may compromise their case. The other three print media companies have decided to continue their participation but have asked for a postponement to the end of February to allow for full consultation with their lawyers.” The task team have given the other three of the big four press (Naspers, Times Media Group, which was formerly known as Avusa, and Independent) time to refer to legal opinion.
“I think it’s a major problem,” William Bird told The Media Online in reaction to Caxton’s exit from the process. “The print media should be going at this full ball. Talking about transformation. Getting involved. Because if this doesn’t work, the print media will be inviting a transformation charter.”
“The print media mustn’t stuff this up,” Bird added. “They need to look as if they care about it. Otherwise government will start threatening a Media Appeals Tribunal. I am also concerned over the reaction of the PDMTTT (the transformation task team) to Caxton’s pulling out. It doesn’t seem to worry them that much.”
At the Durban hearings the task team got damning submissions from small publishers who accused the bigger players of “bullying them out of the industry”. The Witness reported that when Sheila Mhlongo, publisher of KwaZulu-Natal Community Newspapers came forward to give her presentation she was emotional in telling the story of smaller players being “virtually muscled out of existence”.
“As a result of being unable to source enough advertising revenues, sometimes I have to depend on family assistance or opt to get part-time jobs for survival, which has proved to compromise the business in most cases,” Mhlongo told the task team, and cited how the bigger players undercut smaller players in terms of advertising pricing.
Editor of Ilanga, Eric Ndiyane, said advertisers favoured English publications despite the fact that their readership was declining. “IsiZulu is dominating the industry to the extent that English papers are suffocating, but we still do not enjoy the same advertising experience,” Ndiyane said. The Inkatha Freedom Party has financial interests in Ilanga.
Professor Jane Duncan, Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society at Rhodes School of Journalism and Media Studies, has been following and writing about transformation for years. “There are real risks in relying on a transformation process that is not controlled by the print media,” Duncan recently warned in one of many papers that suggested print media get its transformation house in order. “But what is beyond doubt is that an entirely self-controlled process will not deliver the type of press that South Africans need or deserve,” she added.
In a telephone interview with Daily Maverick, Duncan talked about the structural barriers in the industry that make it difficult, if not impossible, for small and independent presses to succeed. “Small players are up against big newspaper groups that are well entrenched and vertically integrated. The bigger print media own their own printers and means of distribution, and they have advertising sales houses that command enormous power in the market, particularly with regards to national advertising,” she said.
“The problem comes with smaller newspapers trying to access national advertising because these national accounts are ‘reserved’ for newspapers owned by the big four. Large advertisers who advertise nationally have quite a prejudiced view of small, community newspapers and tend to reserve advertising for the big four, who are Naspers, Caxton, Independent and Avusa (Times Media Group). Local newspapers mainly get local advertising from regional businesses as well as local and provincial government,” Duncan said. Often governments would pay these newspapers late, for instance on sixty or ninety days, and that would put tremendous pressure on the small media’s cash flow.
Capro, the media and advertising agency that brokers commercial space for smaller community newspapers, was finding it impossible to break into national markets, despite its ability to offer volume packages and benefits, Duncan said. “The problem is that the independent locals offer very good, relevant content. They are in tune with what’s going on in their parts of the country. But the free sheets owned by the big print media houses are generally of a low quality content-wise and production-wise. They are also heavily focused on news generated in the suburbs – they have a suburban bias with limited reach and a poor potential for future growth,” she added. The irony here is that the local indies have the content edge and command reader loyalty, which should be good for advertisers, but industry domination and advertiser bias means they’re not being supported from national advertisers.
A promising development is the emergence of the indigenous language press. “I heard about the establishment of a network of 16 newspapers in the Cofimvaba area of the Eastern Cape that are publishing in isiXhosa. I have also heard, with varying degrees of success, about newspapers that are being created in marginalised languages like TshiVenda, SiPedi and TshiTsonga. When these newspapers have been established there is a huge demand for the them, particularly in the villages of Limpopo where an educational paper was published in TshiVenda and was limited only by its ability to distribute. The demand is there, particularly for indigenous language newspapers.
“If the structural barriers can be overcome, the community press has a massive and bright future and could buck the trend to declining print circulation figures, and really entrench itself as a viable and important component of the press.”
Duncan says the smaller press need to find a way to band together to leverage the sum of their parts to go up against the big four.
With Caxton bowing out of this transformation process, and the other big three speaking to lawyers, it would be naïve to expect the big media owners (having their day with the Competition Commission) to transform themselves, although it must be noted that Times Media has made good strides here from an empowerment perspective.
It may prove best for the smaller media to band together to appeal for support from interest groups, funders and to tackle the problem of presses, distribution and advertisers themselves. But their success will be in their ability to find their own power in unity. DM