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