Opinionista Luzuko Buku 31 August 2015

The profit motive and the collapse of content in the South African media

South Africa’s newsrooms are theoretically editorially independent but the profit motive still drives content to a great degree. While our newsroom cultures are centred on attacking the state, this is driven by the profit motive – newspapers tend to report based on the needs of their middle-class readers in order to avoid losing their support and thus advertisers.

In an article in the Mail & Guardian last week, Professor Richard Calland from the University of Cape Town tried to predict the main areas of discussion in a meeting between President Jacob Zuma and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. The meeting was on 27 August and we have yet to hear its outcomes and whether they were as Calland hinted.

What is interesting for me is the title of his article, ‘Are judges in SA under threat or do they complain too much?’. Within the article he expanded on this question by asking: “So are the judges’ concerns justified or are they being unnecessarily thin-skinned?” I found these to be interesting questions which require deeper consideration by our nation as we are about to celebrate 20 years of the adoption of our Constitution next year.

These are necessary questions in an open democracy as no institution is beyond public scrutiny. Following the recent media debate which saw many people attack any sort of criticism of the media, it is crucial to ask whether the South African media is really under attack or if it is just ‘being unnecessarily thin-skinned’. Judging from the responses to my article in the Daily Maverick I want to believe the latter is the case, at least from the mouth of the self-declared media spokespeople such as Stephen Grootes.

Here I want to respond to some of the constructive criticism by pondering the question of media content and economics. I will nonetheless not deal with some of the comments in the interactive section of the Daily Maverick as clearly most of the people did not follow the advice of the publication in its comments policy when it says: “As a general rule of thumb, just avoid being a douchebag and you’ll be ok, both on these pages and in life.”

I believe journalists must operate with the intention of creating what Jurgen Habermas calls the ‘public sphere’ by providing relevant, well-researched and balanced news. The media should thus be an arena for rational-critical debate rather than a stage for advertising. They should aim to create a democratic climate with maximum citizen participation as a defining feature. While I believe this, I am not naïve of the fact that newspapers need to appeal to advertisers.

This is why readership segmentation is important, as advertisers are interested in selling their products to those who can afford their products, which are mostly found in the higher living standard measures. These are of course the middle and upper classes of the country. When these groups have a particular ideological inclination, newspapers tend to report based on their needs in order to avoid losing their support and thus advertisers. It makes economic sense.

Interestingly enough, the newspaper reading public in South Africa is dominated by the middle class, a huge section of which are white and failing to adapt to the transformation programme. The role of our media has been to supply this group with the news it needs while being politically correct. This is done through an advancement of the narrative of a failed black-led government. They win over advertisers but they unwittingly promote an anti-progress programme.

Our newsrooms are theoretically editorially independent but the profit motive still drives content to a great degree. While South African newsroom cultures are centered on attacking the state, the evolution of this is the profit motive. It is not something journalists are instructed to do but they know that they are in the business of making news that results in sales.

This is why there is no sufficient market for good news in South Africa. All the ventures that started with the intention of promoting good news have little or no readership. This is why along the way they are forced to change their news philosophies and adapt them to what sells.

Do not get me wrong; I am not advancing scrapping advertising or a total disregard for the views of the readership. Throughout history, journalism has always been funded by advertisements, but what has been important is a continuous caution about this untoward influence. It is not a lie that media institutions are in a business of selling the eyes of their readers or viewers to advertisers through producing content that will attract those eyes. To prove this fact, the first government-controlled newspaper in South Africa was the African Advertiser founded in 1800, while the first privately owned was the SA Commercial Advertiser, which was edited by Thomas Pringle.

In my last article, I condemned the editor of The Citizen for admitting to having led an onslaught against then African National Congress deputy president Zuma. I advanced an argument about media conglomeration in South Africa and how few entities can easily manufacture what we think. This works hand in hand with these types of mediums trying to adapt their reporting to suit what their dominant readership or viewership believes.

While I still condemn The Citizen editor, together with his accomplices, I believe they were trying to sell their newspapers by feeding into the discourse of a failed black government, which is supported by the newspaper reading public. The comments sections of not only my previous article but of all online sites are full proof of this.

The South African reading public is of course not monolithic, as it is comprised of the black and white middle class. These groups hold diverse views on the question of the state and the economy, as the latter tends to be critical whilst the former tends to be understanding and supportive. The unfortunate reality is that a greater part of the black middle class read newspapers infrequently, while its white counterparts are consistent. This too is not homogeneous, as a few pockets of the black middle class tend to be anti the state while a minute group of whites tend to be for the state. For me, it makes economic sense therefore for newspapers to continue to cater for the needs of the consistent group.

Of course we need to be talking about how this challenge can eventually be solved. It is saddening that the government is failing to properly use its advertising budget as a way of promoting true media representation. Maybe the problem is that there are no sufficient media alternatives for the government to run its campaigns in.

If any of what I am saying can be true, then why can’t there be a system of independent media regulation in South Africa? The media will only promote critical goals such as diversity, freedom, development and competition if there is a range of tools used to regulate the system. The problem in our country is that we cannot even have these discussions without being labelled media bashers or fascists. The media houses and some self-appointed spokespeople always lead this charge. This is why it is important to ask whether the South African media is really under attack or if it is just ‘being unnecessarily thin-skinned? DM

Luzuko Buku is secretary general of the South African Students Congress.


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