Defend Truth


SA needs a functional independent media now more than ever


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.

The forecast for the year ahead for SA news media mimics that of the country – perilous with bursts of hope. Healthy democracies and their news media tend to walk in lockstep. But if one is sick, chances are the other is already in critical condition – and that was before Covid-19 unleashed itself. So, looking ahead to 2022, it’s difficult to pick out positive macro trends. But as we South Africans are accustomed, with every failure comes an opportunity to solve someone’s problem and be a value creator.

We realise regulation is the only way to deal with Google and Facebook

The only way to deal with the advertising duopoly of Google and Facebook is through regulation. Nation-states and publisher cheerleaders will look to the misguided developments Down Under as a strategy to tackle the rent-extracting efforts of these two organisations. No single media company on Earth has the clout to sit across the negotiating table as an equal, at least not with the might of the state propping them up.

South Africa, either through SARS and/or the Competition Commission, will realise there are fines and taxes going uncollected and might wake up in time to stem the flow of rands from the country. A small miracle may play out and the sustainability of the media sector might somehow align with these efforts to regulate the unaccountable Silicon Valley giants.   

Data and paywalls play a bigger role

As advertising moves (has already moved) from primary revenue source to supporting role player in a news publisher’s mix, many more organisations will take the reader revenue route as a fallback. Daily Maverick did and it is a better organisation for it. But in order to be successful in the reader revenue space, you need two things: 1) journalism worth paying for, and 2) data to drive your paywall and marketing strategy.

Jessica Lessin, founder of the website The Information, best summed it up: “You can’t put a paywall on a pig” with regard to the quality of journalism required to get people to support news publishers. But once the early adopters and superfans are acquired, to sustainably grow a reader revenue programme requires significant investment in data and technology to generate meaningful levels of income.

The New York Times, the poster child of subscriptions in the news universe, which recently surpassed 10 million digital subscribers, employs 1,700 editorial staff and 700 product technologists. This shows the symbiotic nature of quality journalism and technology.

Journalism becomes a bigger target

As our front-line defences against corruption continue to be eroded, public-service and accountability journalism will become a bigger target for those trough-eating kleptocrats. Alongside the harassment and assassination of whistle-blowers, the threats to media houses and individual journalists will sadly increase.

At Daily Maverick we are seeing more legal challenges directed at us, and fewer people willing to do the right thing. Our journalists wake up to daily threats of violence. As an important cog in the front-line defence against corruption that has claimed some high-profile wins, we know these are, ironically, the best of times that will only get worse when it comes to personal safety and emotional abuse.

The crippling exodus of talent

Media is suffering from a generational loss of talent spurred by the dual catastrophe of an industry disrupted and a nation violated. Experienced journalists are being lured away to corporate or government work for greater pay and less risk. The fight for tech and ecommerce skills will continue to be a herculean mismatch as local and international demand soaks up these people.

What this all means is that your favourite news publication will struggle to deliver the best user experience and high-quality journalism that you deserve. Most news coverage will be reactionary and superficial. The investigations that provide perspective and accountability will be harder to come by as journalists and editors with decades of institutional and political system knowledge exit journalism.

The industry tries not to waste a crisis

In all this bleakness, there is but one silver lining: that people in and around the industry realise how utterly screwed we are as a country without a functional independent media. (The real independent media, not those other skelms with the now-ironic title.) Policy reform, tax incentives and rebates can help to revitalise this crucial sector and provide economic cover from the barrage of risks and threats. And these efforts will begin in earnest as the spectre of an eroded media is now clear for all to see.

Nothing drives change quite like desperation. The media industry, much like the country, has this in abundance. DM168

First published in DM168



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