First published in Daily Maverick 168
Funding is an obvious issue that jumps out but requires a deeper understanding of the issues that come with it. To define the problem as “limited access to funding” does not portray the full extent of the issue.
For example, if we magically doubled or tripled the amount of funding available to some organisations, we would most likely be the proud owner of a slower-moving car crash of the same accident waiting to happen. Added to that, large investments are often coupled with the governance issues that sometimes come in the form of billionaire narcissists looking for financial or political playthings masquerading as news outlets. Funding options are also influenced by structures, for example, non-profit versus for-profit. Problem statement: How do we structure financially independent news media so that they may be able to access investment and other funding pools in a governance-friendly manner?
According to the Wits Journalism Project, South Africa lost more than half of its permanently employed journalists and media professionals in the past decade.
Besides losing an entire generation of journalists to industries offering more pay for less risk, we also struggle to attract entrants to the field and then lag in the professional development required to progress a service industry. The lack of skilled workers is not restricted to the newsroom, but also in the areas of product, technology, marketing and e-commerce where media organisations struggle to compete with larger corporates for these people. Problem statement: How might we reclaim lost editorial skills, build capacity and talent pipelines and aid the continuous development of our media professionals?
Embedded in Problems 1 and 2 is a recognition that media have failed at innovation. We can lament the great disruption thrust upon us by Silicon Valley but oligopolistic control of distribution channels certainly helped drive profits in the past. We should not look towards that time and assume profits equal peak journalism and aim to recapture those times. We need to be better than that and innovation, driven by audience-centricity, is the responsibility of leaders. When we look at tackling this issue, we do so through the lens of upskilling our industry leaders. Problem statement: How might we build organisations that are robust and continuously innovating in journalism, new products and revenue opportunities?
If the year that shan’t be named has taught us anything, it’s that every organisation with medium to large aspirations will need to think of itself as a technology company or, at least, recognise its reliance. (To be fair, last year taught us many other things, but that is for therapy sessions).
In the attention economy, media organisations are forced to compete with larger rivals, social media behemoths and streaming video-on-demand operators, all with much bigger tech teams and stacks. User experiences, propelled by data insights, processing power and features make smaller organisations the soft powdery limestone in the land of chalk and cheese. Problem statement: How might we access and fund the appropriate technology required to deliver the best possible service to our audiences?
Some issues such as diversity, fake news, social media and accountability are symptomatic of the environment or do not directly relate to sustainability. In proposing solutions, we will be better equipped but we also need to take into account the major stakeholders in the news media – namely, the greater public, readers, employees, managers and leaders, investors, donors, the business community and government. Each of these has wants and needs that will play a role in how we reconstruct the media environment into a place that fosters a vibrant and sustainable service to the public. DM/BM