Defend Truth


How to take a media company from thriving to surviving to dying


Glenda Daniels is associate professor of media studies, Wits University and is Sanef’s Gauteng convenor. These views are her own.

When there is no independent journalism, journalism loses credibility, sales plummet and the company crumbles.

The media industry can be brutal. To survive though, the basics remain through the ages – provide journalism that readers and audiences can trust. As the Independent Media group unravels, we have to ask: Why does one news organisation survive, even thrive, and another fold? Now what’s happening to the journalists, the boots on the ground?

The Independent Media group holds the largest number of English newspapers in its stable (Cape Times, Cape Argus, The Mercury, Daily News and The Star), as well as the largest isiZulu paper, Isolezwe. This month Independent announced it is retrenching 128 journalists; the latter reported the company hasn’t paid out its retrenchment packages (yet, we hope) but instead gave them food vouchers to the value of R2,500.

Independent will be left with a skeleton of staff from many rounds of retrenchments over the past 10 years. It is always sad when media die as we need more diversity of views in journalism, not less. (Arena is retrenching, Primedia recently retrenched, last year Media24 did, but no one’s heard of food vouchers instead of proper severance). Of course, it’s terrible that journalists are losing their jobs. This adds to more people struggling to survive in South Africa’s precarious economic climate, with growing unemployment.  

Journalists tend to go into public relations jobs and freelance work, the latter where you earn dismal per-word rates. Some do survive in the gig economy and even thrive, but most don’t. Speaking to many today, they report that while they are supplying the services they are taking a long time to get paid, and when they get paid, it’s a pittance. 

There is a baseline formula for survival. This applies through the ages, irrespective of technology, digitisation and the latest disruptor, AI. It really is all about your product: If you are not impressed with SABC news and are privileged to afford DStv,  you switch to eNCA; if you get fed up there you move to Newzroom and click away – if you can pay for the suite of channels.

How independent was Independent?

When there is no independent journalism (fact-based reportage with multiple sources, and perspectives and intelligent analysis) journalism loses credibility, people stop buying the paper because they don’t trust that news; sales plummet, journalists get retrenched, until there’s no one left and the media company closes its doors. Remember The New Age. No one bought it anyway so it got dropped off for free at airports and other places, but very few picked it up to read. And no further surprises that the company didn’t supply circulation figures. No one was interested in how great ex-president Jacob Zuma was because he wasn’t. It was Gupta/Zuma propaganda nonsense.

So, all media, all over the world, are affected by news going online and old models of profit in media companies are finished for good. Everyone in journalism has been affected by digitisation but companies crumble when readers deem your news untrustworthy. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: We’re a world away from Black Wednesday 1977, but the powerful are still trying to shut up the media in 2023

Just as predicted with Dr Iqbal Survé, when he took control of the Independent group, then couldn’t pay his PIC debt, simultaneously inserting himself into the pages, even front pages, had sycophantic reporting of the radical economic transformation faction of the ANC, then you knew it was all going to come tumbling down. The decline has been steady. The group’s flagship The Star used to circulate daily at about 125,000 about 10 years ago; it’s now about 25,000. Of course, quite soon after the fake-news 10-babies story in the Pretoria News, that paper collapsed and is now an insert in the weekend edition. 

You can ruin your reputation by going rogue, and leaving the Press Code of Ethics as proscribed by the Press Council of South Africa – as Independent did in 2016.

The whole drama of job losses  is featured in the first state of the newsroom publication. In just one year between 2013 and 2014, about 1,000 journalists lost their jobs and joined the gig economy. In 2015, Sapa (the South African Press Association) wire  agency closed down too. 

No unions in journalism anymore

Unionisation in journalism has all but disappeared. At one point there were the South African Union of Journalists and the Association of Democratic Journalists and Communication Workers’ Union. None of them exists anymore. It’s not particular to journalism that unions have fragmented, it’s in all different sectors, but journalists have been particularly difficult to organise, according to interviews done for the book, Journalists and Job Losses (Routledge 2022), on the international situation. The South African chapter (“Traumatic Transitions and loss: how journalists in South Africa experience job loss”) journalists who lost their jobs lost their life’s purpose and meaning too; they spoke about their trauma and media companies’ brutality when they were axed, without even a thank-you farewell party.

How to ruin your reputation in journalism 

You can ruin your reputation by going rogue, and leaving the Press Code of Ethics as proscribed by the Press Council of South Africa – as Independent did in 2016. Independent Media lambasted the Press Council for not reintroducing a waiver clause to the Press Code that forces complainants to the ombudsman to relinquish their rights to institute civil proceedings against media houses. The clause was scrapped from the Press Code after the recommendation by former chief justice Pius Langa’s Press Freedom Commission.

That such a large company withdrew from the system, undermined it but ruined Independent’s own reputation more. This is part of the reason for the unravelling of the company. You can’t monitor yourself with your “independent system”. Really, it’s oxymoronic. As for its owner being an open supporter of the RET faction and Zuma; he should have worked out by now that supporting political factions never works. Telling journalists what to write, how to write it, who to interview (including yourself as owner) – all these shenanigans do not work. It’s how to lose your credibility, and how you take a company from thriving to surviving to dying – just lose your independence. DM 

Page 1. Front page DM168. 18 November 2023


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  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    You feel for the backroom staff that have suffered in this process and the journos who played no role in the Tembisa-10 and other pathetic stories hatched by the politicians at Independent. Those reporting on sports or fashion or business or whatever, who have been steamrolled by the crass leadership of the media group.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Your last paragraph is so reminiscent of what is happening in the ‘middle east’ right now! Only Israeli establishment sources (not the one ones in ‘not in my name’) variety are to be regarded as ‘trustworthy’ sic. Hence BBC journalists for example are ’embedded’ in more ways than one, in that hotbed of ‘independence’ and allow regime ‘spokesmen’ and sympathisers free reign to spout whatever propaganda they wish, with so-called ‘moderators’ of the media not allowed to ask any questions – certainly not ones which raise questions about the regime. And the British taxpayer picks up the tab! Fortunately the neighbouring Irish have some modicum of ‘independence’ . The gamut of ‘European’ nations (part of the colonial conquests – sometimes repackaged as voyages of discovery sic! generation) are so in awe of uncle Sam, that they don’t raise any questions about ‘colonised’ and ‘coloniser’ either. Even the new ‘Indian’ king of Britain, like his counterpart in India seem to have ‘forgotten’ their colonial legacy of being colonised, and have unashamedly thrown in their weight with that of the occupiers. But then wasn’t it thee bard who said “For all the world’s a stage …. ” ? About journalists and journalism, even they have been identified as legitimate ‘targets’ by the occupiers … especially the ones who write ‘independantly’ and do not amplify the propaganda of the occupiers. We must remember how in our own country the label ‘terrorist/s’ was used to dehumanise certain people.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    Journalists, photographers, admin staff and sales folks who had worked for Independent Newspapers in some cases for over 30 years have, over a period of six years, packed their belongings into small cardboard boxes and left the building without even a thank you. Award winning journalists, reporters who went to jail during the apartheid era for their writing and those who served the fourth estate in this country with distinction were also ushered out without even a nod to their service because they were “journalists of a certain generation”. In some instances those who tried to put up a fight were told to “get the f**ck out of my newsroom”. It is unforgivable what was allowed to happen at Independent Newspapers. In this article you mention Unions – well you know the situation is dire when the head of the union has lunch with the “Doc” numerous times during the retrenchment process, arrives late for the meetings and seems only interested in what cake there is at the tea table. The sooner the whole thing folds up and just blows away the better. The hurt, the disrespect and the arrogance – there are no words.

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