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Inside the messy demise of New Frame

South Africa

MEDIA WARS

Inside the messy demise of New Frame

(Image: Supplied)

Over the past four years, progressive online publication New Frame won admiration for its reporting on labour and social justice. The abrupt announcement that it is shutting down has caused expressions of outrage and betrayal — as well as some worrying political allegations. How did a seemingly beautiful project turn so ugly?

At the beginning, the staff recruited to work for New Frame couldn’t believe their luck.

They were joining a start-up South African media outlet with rare and fantastic perks. Decent salaries, with unusually generous pay for junior journalists and freelancers. Relaxed publication schedules, without the characteristically relentless pace of most newsrooms. Big, beautiful offices, and lavish team lunches. A chance to focus on the kind of reporting that often gets lost in the political churn of the news cycle: stories with a focus on social justice, labour, and giving voice to the marginalised.  

They would be surrounded by talented, like-minded colleagues: progressive, left-wing journalists intent on making a real difference. Led by an editor well respected for his work in academia and activism, they would “keep a clear and vigilant eye on the lived experience of oppression and resistance”, to quote New Frame’s inaugural editorial. They would push back on stale narratives and provide a “new frame” for viewing old problems.

Most extraordinary of all — vanishingly rare for any media outlet, and virtually unheard of for one focusing on social justice — money would not be a problem. There was loads of it, secure for decades. As a consequence, they wouldn’t have to worry about readership figures: “We are chasing quality, not clicks,” the first editorial announced. Neither would they have to concern themselves with soliciting advertising, or applying for grants, or begging for reader donations — though there was a donation button on the website, discreetly tucked away, if anyone cared to use it.

“It sounded like utopia,” a New Frame journalist told Daily Maverick this week.

“It was sold as non-hierarchical, very fair, all about social justice, [producing] accessible content, with a focus on the workers. For the people who had previous newsroom experience, where there’s always lots of toxic shit happening, it seemed almost too good to be true.”

But it was true — until, bewilderingly, it wasn’t.

In the almost four years since New Frame launched in August 2018, it won admiration for some powerful reporting on neglected issues. Although the South African media industry can be hostile to new arrivals, New Frame was widely respected by its counterparts. Its content was available for free republishing on other sites, and publications including Daily Maverick carried its stories on occasion. The readership figures barely reached a fraction of those of other local media sites, but journalists were repeatedly assured that this was not a problem.

“The money is there,” New Frame editor Richard Pithouse told staff in a meeting held on 21 January 2022.

But just a few months later, the prospect of limited budget cuts was suddenly, for the first time, mooted — to the consternation of employees who struggled to understand how the publication’s financial situation could have changed so abruptly.

By 4 July, following a staff meeting which one journalist described as an “out-of-body experience”, New Frame would publish what looks to be its final editorial, announcing it is “no longer able to continue as before”. 

With all staff set to lose their jobs, the fallout has been incendiary. The fact that an organisation ostensibly founded around a special concern for workers’ rights could strip 25 employees of their livelihoods with so little warning has been greeted as a particularly acute betrayal. As New Frame’s journalists grapple with the question of what happened, disturbing claims are emerging of ideological control and hidden political agendas — claims vehemently denied by Pithouse.

In reporting this story, Daily Maverick spoke to six New Frame staffers. The majority would talk only under the protection of anonymity, citing the threat of defamation lawsuits, anxiety around losing their final wages, and the fear of being publicly smeared as the row escalates.

The latter fear is not unfounded: in a 13-page response to questions sent to New Frame’s editor by AmaBhungane which has been widely circulated in media and activist groups, Pithouse has accused a number of his own journalists of racism, among other charges.     

In the words of one staffer: “What was once a dream became a nightmare.” 

***

The man who holds the key to unlocking much of the New Frame puzzle has not given an interview in decades. US tech tycoon Roy Singham, who made his fortune from software company ThoughtWorks, is the benefactor who has funded the project since its inception.

Pithouse strongly objects to the description of Singham as New Frame’s funder.

“Roy Singham has never made a donation to New Frame,” Pithouse told Daily Maverick.

“He has supported foundations from which New Frame has received funding.”

The editor says this distinction is important because he feels that the issue of New Frame’s funding “has become intensely personalised in a way that is never the case with, say, the Soros Foundation or the Gates Foundation”.

(The Soros Foundation does not exist; Pithouse is presumably referring to the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundation, somewhat undermining his own point.)

But to New Frame staffers, to insist on this distinction now is disingenuous. Since the publication’s launch, Singham has been known to them as their sole donor. Pithouse would frequently mention Singham’s name in meetings and convey Singham’s praise for their work. According to multiple staffers, they were once told that New Frame was Singham’s “favourite project in Africa”.

The implication was clear: Singham pays the bills, and as long as he’s happy, we’re good.

New Frame employees were also aware that Singham funded a range of other projects in the Global South, including other media outlets with a similar mandate to their own. One of the contexts in which this was mentioned: when staff suggested that in the interests of transparency, Singham be named as New Frame’s funder on the website, they were told that to do so might endanger the work of their “sister organisations” operating in more repressive regimes.

What connected Singham’s projects was his politics, which are much further left-wing than those of higher-profile philanthropists like George Soros or Bill Gates. This also makes him an unusual figure in the tech industry in which he amassed his wealth, where politics tend to lean towards the libertarian. As a result of this, Singham has become a cult hero in certain leftie circles, where he is positioned as something like the righteous antithesis of Peter Thiel, the Trump-supporting co-founder of PayPal.

Pithouse’s assertion that Singham’s relationship to New Frame operated at a significant remove is disputed by the employees who spoke to Daily Maverick this week. One was personally interviewed by Singham for his job shortly before the publication’s launch. Another cited a “long meeting” between New Frame editors and “representatives of some of [Singham’s] projects in Brazil and Africa”, followed by a team lunch with Singham.

Singham’s interest in South Africa stretches beyond New Frame. He has a close relationship with Irvin Jim, the general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), and bankrolled the launch of the Numsa-aligned Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party ahead of the 2019 general elections. The South African outpost of Singham’s ThoughtWorks IT company was also reported to be working with Numsa on professionalising the union’s bureaucratic systems around 2017.

Unhappiness from elements within Numsa at Singham’s involvement with Numsa and Jim’s apparent willingness to receive Singham’s money stretches back at least five years. The criticism has had two main prongs: ideological concerns over accepting funds which amount to the spoils of capitalism; and unease, in the post-Gupta era, of foreign businessmen who seem intent on influencing political developments in South Africa.

(In Pithouse’s response to questions from Daily Maverick this week, the New Frame editor raised the Gupta comparison without prompting, terming it “intensely racist” and stating that it stems from Singham’s surname being assumed to be Indian.)

Singham is not widely known in South Africa, and there has been little coverage of him in the mainstream local media prior to the closure of New Frame. One exception has been the columns of South Africa’s leading labour journalist Terry Bell, in which Bell has noted the proximity of Singham to Numsa at various points in recent years.

Significantly, Bell wrote in an August 2017 column: “[Singham] and Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim are apparently set on establishing a ‘pan-African media hub’ in Johannesburg to counter the ‘hegemony of the bourgeois media’.”

Almost exactly a year later, New Frame was launched.

***

“I was sold an independent media project that proved to be an indentured political project.”

That, in summary, is how veteran journalist Darryl Accone explains his decision to resign from the staff of New Frame on 1 June, a month before the mass retrenchments were announced.

Pithouse has suggested in his publicly circulated responses to AmaBhungane that the concerns of journalists speaking out after the closure of New Frame may be motivated by “the fear and anger generated by the possibility of retrenchments”, and by some “white staff” being “hostile” to the publication’s attempts to think “beyond the set of liberal assumptions that are common in the South African media”.

These charges cannot be easily levelled at Accone, however, who is not white and who tendered his resignation — making it clear at the time why he was doing so — a full month before the announcement to staff that New Frame was closing.

The left-wing ethos of New Frame was always perfectly transparent. Pithouse characterised the publication’s founding principles to Daily Maverick as aiming to be “on the side of the working class and to be Pan-African”, thereby creating an “inclusive left space”.

All the New Frame journalists who spoke to Daily Maverick, including Accone, said not just that they accepted this vision, but that it was one of the major appeals of the project for them.

But they say that Pithouse also repeatedly stressed that New Frame was politically independent, a claim he stands by today.

As time went on, however, Accone — who joined the staff in November 2018, a few months after the launch — grew increasingly concerned about what he saw as “a discernible tilt in coverage” towards certain political projects, social movements and issues at the expense of others.

Among the local subjects Accone perceived as being disproportionately favoured for positive coverage: “the Irvin Jim faction of Numsa; shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, to the virtual exclusion of other shack settlement initiatives; the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party, which has Jim as its national convenor”.

Accone was not alone in this view. An award-winning photographer who previously worked with New Frame openly shared his concern with staff that the publication’s dedication to covering even small-scale Numsa activities amounted to “propaganda”. His contract was subsequently not renewed. (Pithouse confirms this, but adds that the photographer continued to receive freelance assignments from New Frame, and claims that there were separate concerns over his manner of interacting with other staff members.)

A current New Frame staffer interviewed by Daily Maverick alleged that on one occasion when covering a Numsa-aligned event, the New Frame team was introduced by unionists as “our newspaper”. The same staffer said that the fact that multiple journalists from within a relatively small newsroom could be dispatched to cover a single Abahlali event seemed excessive, given the number of other stories to be told.

Another New Frame journalist said that there was a sense from top editorial staff that Numsa and Abahlali should be framed as “the political future of the left”, despite the fact that New Frame explicitly presented itself as non-aligned to any particular movements.

Abahlali is widely regarded as a principled and effective social movement, and has received glowing coverage in a number of other South African publications (including Daily Maverick). It was a concern to some New Frame employees, however, that Pithouse was known to work closely with Abahlali in a manner that was never disclosed to readers. Employees cited the fact that Pithouse can be seen occupying prominent positions among Abahlali leadership in photographs of events posted by the movement on social media.

demise new frame pithouse
New Frame editor Richard Pithouse attending the recent funeral of an Abahlali member. (Photo: Facebook / Abahlali baseMjondolo)

Pithouse told Daily Maverick that his long engagement with Abahlali is no secret, and that to be an activist and editor simultaneously is by no means unprecedented within South African media.

Pithouse also stated: “I recused myself from the editorial work around the reporting with regard to Abahlali.”

Two New Frame journalists interviewed by Daily Maverick are adamant that this was not the case. Daily Maverick has seen an email exchange between Pithouse and staff members in which the editor suggested that the proposed presentation of one Abahlali story, prior to publication, did not adequately convey the positive impact of an Abahlali initiative.

Pithouse told Daily Maverick: “Abahlali is, by a huge distance, the largest social movement in the country. New Frame could hardly not have covered it.”

He made the same case about Numsa, saying: “Numsa is by far the largest trade union in the country. It would have been bizarre to have not covered it.”

But none of the journalists who spoke to Daily Maverick held the view that New Frame should not have covered either Abahlali or Numsa. Indeed, most expressed unsolicited enthusiasm for the opportunity to cover labour issues — in which Numsa plays a prominent role — and to report on the impressive work undertaken by Abahlali. The anxieties expressed focused on the growing worry that New Frame might not be as politically independent as readers and journalists had been led to believe.

This was particularly the case given the known political affiliations of New Frame’s sole funder, Roy Singham.

***

In the final editorial announcing that New Frame would cease publishing, Singham’s name never appears. Instead, the publication’s collapse is attributed to the wider financing problems that afflict all media currently, particularly those focused on social justice issues.

“There is no commercial model to sustain [this work],” the editorial states.

“There is no constituency within the public willing to fund it at a viable scale… Donor funding can be invaluable, but it cannot be a sustainable solution.”

The editorial goes on to blame a change in Facebook’s algorithm in 2021 for a precipitous fall in readership: “Suddenly an article that would previously have been read by tens of thousands of people was now being read by a few hundred people.”

The editorial caused an outpouring of commiseration on social media, along with much lamenting of the villainy of big tech and the structural issues to which the publication’s demise was attributed.

New Frame employees, meanwhile, read the editorial and observed the public response in a state of disbelief that quickly turned to anger.

The first public crack in the narrative came when New Frame senior journalist Anna Majavu took to Facebook to air her frustration.

The editorial, she wrote, was “wilfully hiding the real reason that New Frame has been collapsed”.

Majavu wrote that the truth was that “the multi-multi-millionaire (some say billionaire) funder, Roy Singham, has withdrawn his funding for the project, extremely suddenly (just a few months after promising to fund New Frame for ‘20 years’) …The reasons for this appear to be political but it is hard to say for sure as all attempts at seeking transparency have been stonewalled.”

Daily Maverick asked Pithouse why Singham had suddenly pulled New Frame’s funding. Pithouse did not dispute that this was the case, but also did not provide any insight into Singham’s reasoning; instead reiterating the claims made in the editorial about the publication’s low engagement numbers and high operating costs.

The fact that New Frame’s limited circulation was suddenly being cited as the reason for its closure was intensely frustrating to staffers, who say they had repeatedly attempted to engage editorial on potential ways to raise the site’s profile. One journalist told Daily Maverick that not only did staff point out that low readership would make it difficult to win future funders if that became necessary, but there was also personal unhappiness about the fact that work which had been laboured over was being read by such a small audience.

Readership figures seen by Daily Maverick confirm that in recent months some of the site’s top five most-viewed stories were failing to attract even 1,000 pairs of eyes.

Accone says that despite the frequent assurances from Pithouse that the Singham money tap was in no danger of being turned off, more experienced members of the newsroom worried from the start about the wisdom of relying entirely on a single donor.

“The reporters raised this issue at meetings a number of times,” Accone told Daily Maverick.

Majavu’s Facebook post continued: “Certain executive managers at New Frame refused, over many months, numerous offers from staff to identify potential funders, speak with our contacts in funding agencies and write funding proposals, market the site, consult experts in marketing, write up the impact reports that other news sites provide to funders (tracking republishing etc), and suggest ways to make it possible for working class and data-impoverished readers to access the site. There was never a marketing or distribution plan at New Frame at any point in the last four years.”

In a staff meeting earlier this year, Pithouse told employees that he “wouldn’t be able to show his face” [in certain circles] if he accepted additional New Frame funding from sources he considered either ideologically impure or high-risk in terms of potential editorial interference.

Singham, he said, was retired from business since selling his ThoughtWorks company in late 2017, and was now giving his money to social justice causes.

Singham “no longer has any kind of profit-making business,” he assured staff.

Daily Maverick has, however, seen company records from China — where Singham is now resident — listing Singham as the current “sole proprietor” and sole legal representative of at least two multimillion-dollar businesses dealing with wholesale imports/exports and business consultancy services.

When asked by Daily Maverick this week if Pithouse was aware that Singham did indeed appear to have active business interests in China, the country which was to be at the centre of increasingly heated disagreements between some staff and Pithouse over New Frame’s political positioning, the editor responded: “I really have no idea what business, if any, [Singham] has done since he sold his company.”

Staff say that the clear impression they were given was not just that it was safe to rely solely on Singham’s generosity for years into the future, but that funds from Singham — in contrast to those given by other sources to other South African media outlets — were ethically beyond reproach.

***

Two events in the months leading up to New Frame’s closure seem to have brought ideological tensions close to boiling point.

The first was the publication, in January 2022, of an investigation in New Lines Magazine by US academic Alexander Reid Ross and his colleague Courtney Dobson which explicitly linked Singham and a number of his organisations to alleged attempts to launder the reputation of the Chinese government when it came to human rights abuses. This article also revealed the active business interests Singham holds in China mentioned previously.

Although New Frame was not mentioned in the article, it caused alarm for some staff members. They were already worried that their publication, which frequently carried international content originally published on Singham’s other media outlets, seemed noticeably less keen to criticise China’s problematic human rights record than one might expect from an outlet devoted to social justice with a global outlook.

The second event was the February invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which brought to the fore similar concerns about New Frame’s approach to Russia.

In his resignation letter, Accone wrote:

“Stories that are natural, perhaps even obligatory, for a social justice media project have remained unreported or, in some instances, been spiked. To cite a few examples, there is the silence about conditions that Uighurs in Xinjiang are subject to; the silence about the destruction of media freedom in Hong Kong (whereas New Frame has reported extensively on similar acts against the independent media in India); the silence about China and Russia supporting the Myanmar junta; and the lack of any condemnation of Russia’s imperialist war in Ukraine — because socialists should condemn all imperialist wars.”

Pithouse told Daily Maverick that “the allegation that there was some sort of prohibition on critical statements on China is simply not true”. He added that Accone himself “published a number of critical articles on China”.

The same applies to New Frame’s coverage of Russia, Pithouse said, adding that concerns over the publication’s perceived indifference to the “suffering of the Ukrainian people” stemmed from a handful of white staff members taking a “profoundly racialised” position.

There are stark differences of opinion in left-wing discourse globally when it comes to issues relating to Russia and China, and that this heated contestation should have spilled over into the New Frame newsroom is unsurprising.

But in a meeting held specifically to address concerns over “ideology”, Pithouse made it clear that the pushback he was receiving from his staff was becoming an increasingly unwelcome headache. Terming the New Lines Magazine investigation into Singham a “conspiracy theory” that staff should ignore, Pithouse said his journalists were becoming “paranoid”.

He also complained that he now felt compelled to reject certain “good” stories taking particular positions on issues because his staff would “freak out”.

Pithouse’s tone in this meeting, which would be followed some weeks later by the first announcement of potential budget cuts and thereafter the publication’s sudden closure, has led some New Frame journalists to theorise that Singham cut off funding after being made aware that staff was becoming “too bolshy”, in one staffer’s words.

There is currently no evidence to support this, since Singham has offered no public explanation for the funding’s withdrawal, while Pithouse continues to maintain that sudden dissatisfaction over the site’s readership and operating costs is the major reason for New Frame’s closure.

***

One of the few factors beyond dispute in this messy affair is the toll it has taken on all involved — including Pithouse, who for a stretch of New Frame’s operating period was seriously ill.

A number of the journalists interviewed by Daily Maverick for this story described themselves as “traumatised” and “gaslit” — not just by the prospect of imminent unemployment in a job-scarce industry, but by the baffling circumstances around the closure and the toxic aftermath that continues to play out.

There is a lingering impression for some that they may have been used as unwitting pawns in a much wider game centred on Singham’s political vision for South Africa — a game they had no desire to sign up for as journalists primarily hoping to tell stories that mattered.

Pithouse told Daily Maverick that any suggestion that New Frame was being used to support undisclosed political intentions is “a conspiracy theory”.

But the journalists who spoke to Daily Maverick find it inexplicable that Pithouse has not seemed to voice any public frustration at all towards the funder who has left them high and dry so suddenly.

Asked by Daily Maverick what his professional plans were for the near future, Pithouse said that he hoped to return to teaching and writing if possible.

He noted that he has a previous relationship with “Global South research centre” Tricontinental, adding: “It seems that I may be able to continue with that work should I so wish”.

One of Tricontinental’s funders is Roy Singham. DM

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All Comments 6

  • Ho Ho. This bunch of “journalists” writing about nothing for nobody should be pleaseed they had 4 years salary without contributing anything except to their own narcissism.

  • I support as much media diversity as possible, so its always sad when a news source closes. However, New Frame really was ridiculously far left so accusations of being “too bolshy” would be correct.

  • And so it is with all funded projects and especially in the wake of COVID. Major donors pulled funding from crucial interventions citing economic constraints. Meanwhile, the lottery sits on its hands.

    • Does the demise of New Frame leave Daily Maverick as South Africa’s “left wing flagship”? Or is DM like the tech industry, where politics tend to lean towards the libertarian?

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