South Africa’s ailing news media industry needs to do more than just survive


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

It’s a well-beaten drum that the news media industry is in trouble. There is consensus that sustainability is our biggest issue, but we’re lacking in actionable steps that we could take to repair and improve our status quo. In a series of articles, I will offer some practical suggestions as to how we can reimagine the environment so that we do more than survive. In this first article, we look at articulating the problems so that we may present some concrete solutions in future articles.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

Problem #1

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?

Problem #2

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?

Problem #3

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?

Problem #4

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


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All Comments 7

  • How about sticking to the truth and presenting facts without political bias or political correctness and let the reader comment his/her views with better information?

  • One of the things that the “MSM” should be doing, but few outlets actually even try to achieve clearly & unambiguously, is to seperate Opinion from News. This is a constant battle the world over. In the UK where the dominant narrative on a long running political storm such as Brexit actually consisted of journalistic opinions rather than reportage & in the USA the news media is either NYT/CNN or the extreme “right-wing” Fox stuff. The Maverisk is actually pretty good in that respect but the constant harping on about all things “left = good” does not endear many of the writers to any average reader actually prepared to contribute financially. There is often little attempt to accurately reflect reality but huge (& often extremely funny) effort goes to tarnishing reputations of politicians around the world with an “accepted view”. The examples that annoy me are when writers automatically equate Trump’s instincts with those of Boris Johnson, and Brexit = bad whereas the EU = good, when facts & experience may tell a totally different story.

  • DM is not marketing as well as it should. I was born in 1946 and am degreed and have risen in the ranks of corporate structures, but it is only in August 2019 that I started reading DM and started paying subs. Why ??? I was aware of something called “Maverick” but the name itself put me off ….. who wants to have anything to do with mavericks ?? Finally someone told me the truth about DM and I was hooked. I even gave up reading New Scientist to make space for DM !! The future of RSA depends on DM and similar news outlets. DM needs to knock on the door of every responsible South African and explain the situation. Why was I left to languish in ignorance until 2019 ??

    • I definitely agree with you around the marketing (I’m about 10 years younger than you…); DM is unique in its approach of “no pay-wall, a subscription gives you some benefits”. I’m not able (or prepared) to subscribe to News24, Business Times, NYT, WSJ… (the list is almost endless) just to try and get a more balanced selection of news and opinion. DM has always had a fairly wide range of views, and a not too hysterical commentariat, so I believe it is well worth pushing their proposition of not using a paywall very hard; it is a compelling proposition in today’s world of ever-increasing numbers of niche subscriptions to so many different things. To an extent, DM follows the Patreon model of supporting the creator instead of paying for their views afterwards.
      I’d like to see DM going from strength to strength

      • I am in a similar position, the day that Adriaan basson told us that Squirrel wasn’t all that bad and was trying his best, was the day I subscribed to DM. News 24 can have his pay wall and keep his juicy stories to himself. i also support IRR and Politics web, the latter purley for a certain professor Bullards weighty weekly contribution.
        I also enjoy Mavericks mode of having seperate business and Sport editions.

  • With the decline in revenue of news media, there is unfortunately an equivalent decline decline in quality of news reporting. Whilst in print media and online media outlets, such as DM, the reader has a choice to read what is written, in broadcast media it is more difficult. However, what I can say with certainty, is that the quality of anchors on the 3 main TV channels, ENCA, SABC and NewzAfrica is appalling. Since Anton Harber left ENCA, the latter has been in a downhill spiral. NewzAfrica has stolen some anchors from ENCA, but they are are so mediocre it is frightening, especially when they give their so-called opinions. And the SABC, well it is the SABC. Some of their radio stations are credible, like SAFM and RSG (and hopefully some of the African Language stations), but on TV, its a joke. Yet these mediocre news readers promote themselves as if they are God’s gift, the worst are the guys/girls of ENCA. The latter, which 3 years ago was my favourite, has only one credible person left in prime time (Jane Hutton), and later at night, Anika Larson has potential. The rest……fly me to the moon (Frank Sinatra)…..