Independent journalism and news distribution play an indispensable role in informing citizens. They are a pillar of public life and pluralistic, democratic societies. At their best, they are a source of reliable, quality information that people trust and understand. As South Africa and the world commemorated World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, we have to pose and ask not so much about media freedom — rather, we should embrace the challenges faced by the publishing sector and democratic governments alike whose measurement of the type of government they preside over is purely based on the depth of free and independent media as the Fourth Estate.
Since the 17th century, the role of the press as Fourth Estate and as a forum for public discussion and debate has been recognised and, to this end, the South African publishing sector has been producing news to communities for the past two centuries.
In his book Cultural Studies, Identity and Politics Between the Modern and Postmodern, Douglas Kellner notes that we live in a time of dramatic change and upheaval, and that there has been a series of spectacular changes in culture and society throughout the world. Kellner argues that media culture is industrial culture, organised on the model of mass production and is produced for a mass audience according to types (genres), following conventional formulas, codes and rules.
He further argues that media culture is thus a form of technoculture that merges culture and technology in new forms and configurations, producing new types of societies in which media and technology become organising principles.
The newsgathering and distribution process is undergoing deep changes as the number of physical newspaper titles, their circulation and newspaper readership are in decline. On the revenue side, the global newspaper publishing market derives about 57% of its revenues from advertising and about 43% from newspaper sales. The reliance on advertising is very high in South Africa and given the current economic environment, readership numbers and advertising revenues are mostly falling, while competition from traditional sources such as television, radio, social media and over-the-top services (OTTs) require urgent attention to ensure that government provides a conducive environment for the long-term financial sustainability of the sector.
Today, the publishing sector not only has to compete for viewers/readers with domestic commercial competitors, but there is now a plethora of foreign content/services available over cable, satellite, internet platforms and OTT platforms such as Hulu, Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc. As a result of this perfect storm of technologies, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is paving the way for transformative changes in the way we live, radically disrupting almost every business sector.
The retrenchment trend in the mainstream publications and the disruption of newspaper consumption patterns is also affecting just over 400 community and small commercial print media. These trends both in the mainstream and community media could result in more newspapers either scaling down significantly or completely shutting down, affecting the role of journalists and the future of employment in this sector, thus harming the notion of diversity, plurality and multiplicity of voices.
This is because none can deny that each print organisation is a business, after all, seeking to generate value and growth for shareholders, and sustainability and income for employees. To this end, the transitional advancement in digital technologies and the increasing number of new media platforms has revolutionised the ways in which people communicate and share information. These technologies have affected the sociocultural, political and economic structures of contemporary society. The impacts have been particularly evident in the journalism profession, especially in the print media.
It must be noted though that while the print newspaper sector might be struggling, internet users report a large increase in reading online newspapers, but most online readership is more ad hoc, irregular and sporadic than print newspaper readership used to be. The way news is consumed is also radically different online. Online news readers get a variety of news from different sources, allowing them to mix and compile their own personalised information. However, it is unclear whether online readers obtain the same depth and breadth of news as traditional readers.
This means that as we commemorate World Press Freedom Day, we need to realise that the time for applying bandages in the publishing sector and various government agencies is over, but in the case of South Africa, it is not yet the time for surgery. DM