Opinionista Chris Vick 26 February 2013

Newspaper turkeys refuse to vote for Christmas

Two of South Africa’s “Big Four” newspaper groups have now pulled out of the task team they set up to consider how they could transform their own industry. This is what happens when you let the turkeys try to vote for Christmas.

There are a few ways of assessing Times Media Group’s (TMG) decision, announced on Monday, to follow Caxton out of the task team they established to “self-transform” the print media industry.

The first is the possibility that an ongoing Competitions Commission probe into possible collusion and predatory practices – the public reason given for withdrawing from the transformation process – is so potentially harmful that it requires all hands on deck.

The second possibility is that the print media – or, at the very least, two of the four major players – don’t see the conversation around transformation as their number one priority right now.

The third option is that it’s a combination of both.

The key consequence, though, is a potential killer blow for the self-transformation exercise embarked upon by Print & Digital Media South Africa (PDMSA), which has now had to twice postpone public hearings because half its key members are boycotting their own process.

At the very least, it casts doubt on whether the process can emerge with a credible outcome – and, as was intended, head off a parliamentary inquiry, in line with the outcomes of the last ANC national conference, into the lack of transformation in the newspaper industry.

But it’s not as if the PDMSA’s Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team (PDMTTT) had much going for it in the first place.  

Before it even held its first hearing, it had ruled out the possibility of a transformation charter, arguing that it was best-placed to look after itself, thank you very much. It also rejected suggestions that anyone other than itself – Parliament, for example, as the state’s legislative and oversight body – should oversee the process of defining and measuring transformation. And as the PDMTTT has shuffled along, it has done a miserable job of trying to popularise the few low-key public hearings held so far. 

In a media statement issued late on Monday, the PDMTTT itself “expressed disquiet” at the fact that “two of the four major groups that tasked them to do the work have pulled out”.

The task team said it was going to meet with the PDMSA leadership – which includes representatives from TMG and Caxton – “to express its views on the developments and to sketch the way forward”.

Setting up your own transformation process is always going to have its limitations, though. And asking a members-only institution like the newspaper industry to voluntary change itself, almost 20 years into democracy, is a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.


What’s good for the goose

Other industries – much more complicated, and of equal social relevance ­– are much further down the line, in part because they respected and adhered to the regulatory environment set down by government, and in part because they had little choice.

The Department of Trade & Industry’s latest annual report outlines at least 10 economic sectors which have developed and implemented transformation charters. They include the financial sector, whose charter contains mechanisms for ensuring increased access to finance for black people and black-owned enterprises; the ICT sector, which set a black ownership target of 30% and provision for 5% net profit after tax to be spent on growing and developing black-owned ICT enterprises. In addition, 1.5% of net profit after tax will be spent on socio economic development.

Initiatives to improve the lives of communities through the use of ICTs in education and health; the property sector, which encourages investment in properties in underdeveloped areas, to reduce service delivery inequalities; and the chartered accountancy sector, which aims to achieve 32.5% black ownership by 2016 and to “increase the number of black people, particularly black women entering the profession, to reflect the country’s demographic population”.

There are also a few older codes in practice: the construction industry, which signed its code in 2009, sets a target of 30% black ownership over the next 10 years. There are also charters for the transport industry, tourism and forestry – as well as the grandparent of transformation charters which, though signed by members of the marketing, advertising and communications (MAC) industry in 2008, excludes those who are paid to fill the editorial spaces in newspapers.

Implemented with some success (alongside some real failures), the MAC charter – developed with the active involvement of government – sets some interesting benchmarks which the newspaper industry may want to consider:

  • “Using our strengths to promote pride in the South African brand.”
  • “Contributing to broader transformation (of society) by promoting understanding and appreciating our diverse cultures, traditions, histories, abilities and disabilities.”
  • “Highlighting prejudice where it exists by promoting tolerance of all human beings. In doing so, the sector can become a mirror of the soul of the nation.”

At the time of signing the charter, the communications industry acknowledged that it “works in a society where the poor, the illiterate, people with disabilities, women and children suffer a myriad of intolerances. While working for their amelioration and empowerment, the industry shall ensure that the dignity of all human beings, and in particular of these vulnerable groups, is respected.”

It also committed to “abiding by the principle of good corporate governance and by the highest standards of ethical business practices.”

In the case of newspapers, one could take that to mean no monopolistic tendencies. No collusion. No predatory practices. And no “ethical lapses” into chequebook journalism or “churnalism”. Which may of course, be why some balk at the prospect of a more regulated environment, or even a process to consider it.


Journalists know better

Despite the limited impact to date of the task team’s call for inputs, some interesting views have been put forward. One of the most pointed contributions came from the Indie Trust, set up by the Media Workers’ Association and journalists at Independent Newspapers (whose bosses are still part of the PDMTTT hearings at the time of writing – but you never know.).

In its submission, the trust argues that “the print media has failed to address the transformation challenges that it has faced since the late 1980s and that became more urgent after 1994.”

It adds: “The continued failure to meet this challenge not only risks intervention from the government but will see print media companies become increasingly irrelevant to a growing section of the public. This irrelevance will in the long-term threaten the financial viability of even the largest print media companies.

“Many of the shortcomings in the group’s newspapers today are the direct result of relentless cost-cutting over the years which have forced editors to make absurd choices about what stories NOT to cover, put unreasonable pressure on reporters, photographers and sub-editors, as well as sales and print staff.

“This cost-cutting pressure has sent our circulations spinning downwards as readers inevitably refuse to pay rising prices for newspapers whose quality can no longer be guaranteed. We can barely cover the cities properly; the rural areas are effectively out of our reach.”

Indie Trust member Ann Crotty – editor-at-large of Business Report – adds: “I fear that our licence to operate, that is the willingness of people to speak to the media and the willingness of people to read what we write, is being undermined by the fact that we do not play that role adequately and are not reflecting this country’s diversity.

“The public with whom we engage – either as readers or as ‘newsmakers’ – must feel confident we are playing that role. If they don’t then over time we lose readers and we lose access to ‘the newsmakers’.”

She concludes: “If we do not change we will become irrelevant and there will be no media business.”

The new head of the SA National Editors’ forum, Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes, is more upbeat, and more forthright in his opposition to a transformation charter, which he described in an interview with a media website called Grubstreet as “a potential backdoor for newspaper registration and licensing”.

“This can clearly be used as a tool to control and limit awkward voices and is a back-door way to regulate the press inappropriately,” he is quoted as saying. “To have what amounts to a licence to operate on the basis of charter compliance is clearly in conflict with media freedom principles.”

Ingrid Louw, chairman of PDMSA, told the same website that her organisation was “comfortable that strategic discussions we have held, together with our independent PDMTTT process, will produce an outcome that will take the industry on a positive transformation trajectory.”

That, of course, was before TMG pulled the plug on the PDMTTT and the trajectory started to resemble the flight path of a North Korean nuclear weapon.

But, in the spirit of never saying die, the PDMTTT is going to continue with its hearings on Wednesday and Thursday “to hear other stakeholders including government, the ANC, the SA Audience Research Foundation and advertisers”.

Two of the four turkeys who should be in the room, of course, won’t be there to hear the evidence. DM

Chris Vick runs Black, a communications consultancy.


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