Defend Truth


No news is bad news as media houses flounder in the digital age


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.

News is part of the entertainment industry, and 32% of people polled by Reuters say they actively avoid it. When asked what they would pick if they could only have one online media subscription, 37% of under-45s said online video like Netflix, and only 7% opted for a news subscription.

It’s bad enough . . . when a country gets colonised, but when the people do as well! That’s the end, really, that’s the end.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

Since 2012, the number of countries surveyed in the Reuters Institute’s report on the state of digital news has grown from five to 38, and this is the first year that South Africa, or indeed any African country, has been included. We could ask a few political questions about bias and choice, but in truth one reason we haven’t been including until now could be as simple as this: we aren’t very important.

Despite all the resources that news organisations in South Africa wield, we’ve come up with nothing original or interesting to break the stranglehold that US platforms have over our industry. This is in contrast to the leaps African countries have made in other digital arenas, such as banking. Time is running out for us. Unless we take advantage of local audience peculiarities, such as language or data network configurations, we’ll be in the same place as much of the rest of the world’s traditional news media: eviscerated and hanging on by the grace of Google.

In my darker moments, I think of the overweening US platforms as colonising powers, colonising powers that are more analogous to great religious movements than empires. In the same way that Christianity was the thinking and community platform that enabled the colonisation of people (a necessary prerequisite to the colonisation of a country, as the great Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga reminds us in the epigraph above) the US social media platforms are the engine that drives the (perhaps unconscious) digital imperialism of the West.

So why is the Reuters report important? (In the interests of disclosure: I helped write the section on South Africa.) It’s important because we can draw some lessons from the many failures and sparse successes of other news territories.

All the areas covered by the global report are of interest to South African media, so I urge you to download the report and read it yourself. But if we were to pull out the most salient points, they would be as follows:

Subscription models aren’t going to save news organisations

Globally, there was only a tiny increase in people paying for any online news, whether by subscription, membership or donation. And, more ominously, “even in countries with higher levels of payment [such as Norway (34%) and Sweden (27%)] the vast majority only have ONE online subscription”. The South African survey indicated that 16% of respondents pay for news, which seems high, and decidedly at odds with what news subscription figures actually appear to be. Unfortunately, they could be paying the New York Times, rather than a local media source. This is not to say that one or two news organisations won’t be able to make some sort of subscription model work. But it’s not going to keep a diverse news environment going.

Netflix is your competitor

For better or worse, news is part of the entertainment industry. On a perhaps related note, 32% of people say they actively avoid the news, up six percentage points overall from two years ago. Reasons for avoiding the news are because it has a negative effect on their mood (58%) or because they feel powerless to change events. South Africa is above the global average, at 37%. When asked what they would pick if they could have only one online media subscription for the next year, 37% of under-45s said online video (like Netflix), 15% said online music, and a paltry 7% opted for a news subscription.

Trust in media is dropping globally

The average level of global trust in the news in general is down two percentage points to 42%, and less than half (49%) agree that they trust the news media they themselves use. Trust in the news found via search (33%) and social media (23%) is stable but very low. In South Africa, overall trust in the news most of the time is 48%, 10th place in the 38-country survey (higher than the UK, US and Australia). People trust the brands they use a bit more (54%) but they are much less likely to trust the news they find on social media (28%). Scarily, 70% of the South African sample say they struggle to separate fact from fiction online – one of the highest figures in the international survey.

We can find a silver lining if we want to. The fact that we’re so worried about untrustworthy news sources means that, conceivably, consumers will cleave to the trusted news brands. Globally, 26% say they have started relying on more “reputable” sources of news, and this is as high as 40% in the US. And 24% of respondents say they’ve stopped using sources that had a dubious reputation in the last year. Unfortunately, in South Africa we have malevolent agents running very targeted campaigns designed to muddy the reputation of brands and individual journalists, which means that some people will find it difficult to make a brand trust call. And this has been exacerbated by some high-profile journalistic lapses.

Breaking news is literally doing that

A casualty of the news industry’s desperate rush for eyeballs has been that people now see the media as doing a better job at breaking news than at explaining it. Perhaps a more honest way of putting that would be, people now see the media as getting worse at explaining news.

Across countries, almost two-thirds of respondents feel that the media are good at keeping people up to date (62%), but are less good at helping them understand the news ( 51%). There’s an opportunity here, perhaps, for South African news products focused on analysis, and especially ones (like the new startup that focus on a particular niche audience.

But in general, SA news organisations should be thinking about fighting a rearguard action and carefully weigh up the pursuit of a mass audience in favour of parlaying meaning into reader loyalty. DM


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