Defend Truth


No news is very bad news


Chris Roper is deputy director of Code for Africa, a director of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting, and most recently held the position of editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian. He was founding portal manager of Tiscali World Online, portal manager for MWEB, and Editor-in-Chief at He was a Knight Fellow for the ICFJ from 2015 - 2019.

It’s one of the pressing questions of our time: how are we going to save news journalism from the ravages of declining revenue? Not the news industry: we’re not really interested in saving the legacy of economic structure that privileges publishers over practitioners. And not breaking news, which is now defined as social media sound bites to provoke drive-by engagement. What we want to save is news journalism, which we can define as journalism that is time-intensive, edited by more than one person, and that’s about setting the news agenda rather than buying into the breaking news shitegeist.

Why do we want to save news journalism in South Africa? Three main reasons.

One: Because without investigative and beat journalists shining a light on corruption, crime and the vagaries of civil society, bad people will destroy our democracy.

Two: Without trusted media brands to mediate meaning for society, the dominant story of South Africa will be told by politicians, businesses and elites who can pay for platforms.

And three: If local media sources die, the massive American tech platforms, like Google and Facebook, will own all access to South Africans. Essentially, we’ll be outsourcing our national narrative to American businesses.

Since the advertising model has been all but destroyed, and newspaper circulation has dropped by 49% over the last 10 years, one of the mechanisms to which SA news publishers have turned is subscription models. This is current wisdom, as exemplified by this tweet from Michael Jordaan: “The New York Times now makes more revenue from digital than from print. This is good news. If you produce quality content, discerning readers are willing to pay a fair price.”

Alas, as much as we would all like this to be true, it’s only possible in a large market, and even then the New York Times spent “nearly $49-million on marketing and ads”.

The vast majority of South Africans aren’t paying any price for quality news content, never mind a fair one. And it looks like they never will. The situation with news organisations who have implemented subscription paywalls appears to be parlous.

I asked a few of them to share their digital subscriber numbers. The Mail & Guardian, who implemented a paywall in 2015, said that “unfortunately” they couldn’t share numbers. When I asked Tiso Blackstar to tell me their subscriber numbers, they also said that they weren’t willing to, but told me “our most successful paid model is BusinessLIVE, which has enabled us to increase new business subscribers by 40%”. It’s not a good sign if you don’t want to reveal how many people are willing to pay for your content.

The picture appears a little better with a brand like Netwerk24, who were happy to tell me that they had 44,017 digital subscribers in December 2018, each paying R99. But that’s for around 11 magazine brands and more than 30 local newspapers in Afrikaans and doesn’t translate into anything like a substantial subscription base for that many titles.

The only news brand (if we consider Netwerk24 to be a kind of portal) that was willing to disclose a figure was Daily Maverick, who at time of asking had around 4,500 “Insiders”, as they call “people who have subscribed and made once-off contributions”. (That number now stands at 5,500 – Ed) But this isn’t really a subscriptions model as such, although it might be more effective in some ways, as some of the voluntary contributions have been substantial. Also, it relies very much on the sense of community which drove original newspaper models before the fragmentation of digital. Daily Maverick says that they are “focused on building the community and extending it to ways people can contribute in non-financial ways too. It’s about more than just generating reader revenue but harnessing the goodwill and willingness to be part of something more with Daily Maverick.

All of the above is not to criticise any of the good people struggling to implement a subscriptions model, but rather to illustrate how difficult it is to succeed in a tiny market with global competitors, many of whom are providing a free offering, and where social media is increasingly replacing local news.

So what is the answer, or answers?

The most appealing scenario is that civil society and business will realise that news media is not a nice-to-have, but an essential lubricant for the engine of an economically viable democracy that drives the well-being of society. Imagine a world where the resources of civil society organisations, the marketing heft of big business, and ethical journalism evolve a system that plays to a multiplicity of niche audiences, rather than having to dilute journalism by carrying content designed to drive advertising traffic.

In this system, all parties would win. The civil society organisations would have a much stronger platform from which to carry out their good work, businesses would reach audiences through ethical advertising that actually makes a difference, and news media would be able to devote resources to journalism that makes a difference.

It’s a utopian idea in some ways, and perhaps a short-term panacea in others. But all it requires is someone to step outside of the norm and pioneer a whole new way of fuelling the heavily compromised ecosystem that bedevils legacy media business models.

It seems fairly clear that subscriptions models aren’t going to work in South Africa, or at least not work well enough to stay the inevitable decay. Small outfits like amaBhungane and Daily Maverick can survive, and perhaps even flourish for a time, with the goodwill and donations of grateful readers and donors. Big players like Media24 can continue to live off the leavings of Naspers for a while, especially since they’re a smart company always tinkering with their digital strategies.

But there’s a whole swathe of media in the middle who are going to need something of a miracle to survive in a form conducive to good journalism. A miracle, or a concerted entrepreneurial effort by industry outsiders with a fresh view. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted