Guy Berger
Guy Berger

See SA media in a bigger and changing picture

Lifting your gaze from the gritty business of fighting for information and press rights, it’s pretty interesting to consider South Africa in wider international context.

How does the country’s media system stack up in comparison to the US, Italy, Russia and China? What’s common, what’s changing, what’s relevant?

Here are the highlights of a conference in Stockholm last week on the topic “Media, Politics and the Public”, convened by former Financial Times journalist John Lloyd and South African scholar Janice Winter for the Axess Programme on Journalism and Democracy.

US — finding the funding for journalism
According to media historian Paul Starr, the US initially thought the internet would boost journalism, only to find it has fragmented audiences and weakened finances. Donor funding, he told the conference, has played a role in moderating the worst effects of mass retrenchments of journalists — but it’s only a tenth of the money that’s been lost.

The implication of Starr’s analysis is that the survival of journalism in the US will depend on subsidies from public funds. In his view, after a period in which Europe’s media moved in an American direction, a reverse copying — of the subsidy system — could be on the cards.

Interestingly, a 2004 book by Starr called The Creation of the Media shows that the press historically only flourished in the US because of massive state subsidies for the postal distribution of newspapers — and through a system that kept government influence out of editorial content.

Much South African media is also taking financial strain, and so we might look more closely at the models being explored in the US for a system of impartial state funding.

Not that the US’s journalism itself is only in need of money. Another input on that country’s media came from Rodney Benson of New York University. He called for the US’s journalism to expand from only acting on behalf of the public, to valuing everyone’s perspectives and promoting a more participative democracy.

And, while journalism in the US tends towards a fragment-at-a-time stories, he said, there was space to adopt the more integrated approach of French journalism.

Who wouldn’t argue that similar recommendations could apply to South Africa?

Europe — an end to independent journalism?
Swedish academic Mattias Hesserus argued that capitalist owners in Europe had allowed journalistic independence because it made money for them, but staff cuts had now become the order of the day. Journalists could no longer bite the hand that fed them.

The answer, for Hesserus, is to encourage different kinds of ownership, such as by churches, co-operatives and political parties. An issue he didn’t mention was ownership by communities — as in South African community radio.

Likewise, ownership by journalists. That’s something to look at besides BEE ownership issues in South Africa.

A BBC journalist speaking from the floor pointed out that as journalism jobs are in retreat in developed countries, PR jobs are in expansion. (Coincidentally, I heard that a new book called The Death and Life of American Journalism gives the ratio in the US as four PR people to each single journalist.)

On the brighter side, the news that does continue is growing a longer tail via social networks. Sweden, I’m told has 100% Facebook penetration among young people. The result is that journalism is reaching many groups who were previously outside the circuit of journalism. And these people are also new sources and content producers as well, even though that doesn’t quite replace professional journalism.

What seems to be getting impetus among all the changes is the increasing partisanship of journalism in Europe. Talking about the Italian case, Lloyd suggested that country’s increasing integration between politics and media could be a vision of the future elsewhere.

Researcher Ferdinando Giugliano painted a picture of Italy where audiences rewarded partisan media with attention, and ignored the independent media. The result is that populist editors and journalists are slugging it out as much as their political patrons do.

This is a model where there’s a pluralism of views across different media, but not within any single outlet. Media analyst Paolo Mancini who has dubbed this as democracy with a “polarised-pluralist model of media”, reminded the conference that most democracies around the world do not in fact subscribe to the independence model of journalism.

He didn’t say it, but a serious problem with the Italian system is that people mainly consume the media that agrees with their prejudices. And a consequence is Big Man politics — as epitomised by Berlusconi who entertains and succeeds across sports team ownership, business ventures, politics and media ownership.

The significance for South Africa? Our media could do well to continue aspiring to the model of politically independent journalism, and also encourage audiences to see the value of this.

Russia and China
A control-oriented political role is being played by journalism in Russia and China. According to the Economist’s Moscow bureau chief, Arkady Ostrovsky, “doing serious journalism in Russia is a luxury, and talking about it is a double luxury”. The Russian media operate in a context where politics was all about business, not ideology, and there is a descent back towards authoritarianism, he said.

Through the media, Russia’s government is successfully purveying a myth that the West hates the country and is jealous of its national resources, according to journalist Julia Latynina. For the view that Russia was great, she said, “you switch off the reality and switch on the TV”.

From China, researcher Haiyan Wang said that the old style of Communist Party journalism now had to compete with non-party journalism and market-oriented journalism, as well as with critical and professional journalism. Journalists had to navigate simultaneous adherence to the party line and the bottom line.

She outlined three intersecting zones in Chinese journalism: the forbidden, the permitted and encouraged, and the negotiated.

• Forbidden topics are the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the new Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo.

• The permitted and encouraged zone encompasses reportage about the Communist Party and the economy.

• But journalists also negotiate boundaries of vagueness by reporting protests with phrases like “people gathered for a stroll” and strikes as “taxi drivers stopped work and went to tea to discuss common concerns”.

Chinese professor Zhan Jiang spoke about the evolution of “Yulun Jiandu” — which is watchdog journalism “with Chinese characteristics”. It was currently contributing to “media-driven public-participation” and the growth of civil society, he said.

This is a country that, according to Zhan, has one billion TV viewers, 200 million newspaper readers, 700 million mobile users, and 400 million netizens.

South Africa may have aspirations to join the Brazil-Russia-India-China (Bric) category of countries, but our democratic system makes for pretty different government-press relations in at least two of these. I doubt we would want to emulate authoritarian regimes.

To sum up, South Africa has a lot to learn — both positive and negative — from the US’s funding issues, the Italian partisanship model, and the dependent context of journalism in Russia and China.

  • Kwame

    I think the current media will die a natural death, and allow for a ‘people oreinted media’ that is transparent and accountable to its people. Currently we have a media that is controlled and funded by big corporations and yet its claimed our ‘media is free’. Even the editorial staff is appointed behind closed doors for profit making.

    In the future, the role of media as a ‘news-middleman/trader’ or ‘information filter’ will no longer be the case. Instead, all our systems will be access and transparency-built, enabling us to have a direct and better feed of information from various sources.

    Our news and analysis will also be ‘value-adding’ and not the alarmist ‘hollywood-script’ news that we are currently experiencing. Self-regulation will also be a thing of the past, and be replaced by ‘people-regulation’.

  • hds

    I’m curious, Guy, as to what you think of the emergence of “citizen journalism.” At first I thought it had promise as a populist exercise that encouraged a broader swath of people act as democracy watchdogs, but now I am concerned that it is simply a way to get cheap/free labor (Huffington Post, for example, doesn’t pay the vast majority of its contributors) and to edge out professional journalists, as if it’s a job that anyone can do and which requires no particular skill set or acumen.

    It also gets difficult to sort out, say, an Andrew Sullivan or Josh Marshall from Crazy Eddie blogging from his mother’s basement in his underwear. When there are no universally respected media outlets, will navigating the many different styles of journalism on offer require a much more sophisticated and media-literate population than we have?

  • Garg Unzola

    The social media angle and the rise of so-called citizen journalism is going to change the face of media forever. People simply do not trust anything with big money backing behind it. While the quality of blogs (“air guitar journalism”) may not measure up to real journalism, people tend to trust social media sources more than traditional press, partially due to the incompetence of government-run news sources and partially due to problems with perceived ideologies in the press. I say perceived because the Red Brigade sees Neo-Liberal ideology propaganda everywhere, while the Rights see Socialist propaganda everywhere – and they often read the same newspaper. The news is fast becoming just more entertainment instead of a reliable source of information, as the recent coverage of the Chilean miner crisis shows.

  • X Cepting

    A great, informative, broad analysis, which seems to be getting rarer by the day.

    The way I see it, this type of information is what people crave. The role of the investigative/analysing journalist will never dissapear because most people who want to know do not have the time or skills to extract news/trends from what they see around them and to present it in clear, neutral univolved format. This is why newspapers are losing market, I believe. It is so time consuming to filter through the emotion-laden, biased “reports” and piece together what actually happened that one has to buy at least 6 different newspapers to get the news. If journalists did not get awards for sensationalism and was not funded by corporates/politicians one might get just news. Alas… Most of the newspapers in South Africa are owned by just one company which is not very healthy. Monopolies do not serve the interests of democracy. The “variety” is designed for specific markets and it becomes little more than bad entertainment to read some newspapers. Add to that increased environmental awareness and, I think, news on paper has seen its day. Why has no-one come up with the concept of pay-as-you-read? Surely we have the electronic capability to make this possible? In this way the publice once again becomes the customer, not advertising companies. Newsmen would instantly know what appeals to the public. Printing companies could invest in broadband instead.

  • X Cepting

    @hds – I had a similar notions of “all on the net” serving democracy and it does work, as long as the journalists get to present the news on news sites that follow clear rules about sensationalism, misrepresentation, etc. and everyone else are limited to commenting. As with any other product people want reliability. Crazy Eddie won’t have much of a following except perhaps the CIA, Interpol and some psychos.

  • Guy Berger

    “Kwame”, please don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. It would be wrong to rubbish contemporary journalism and to dream that “people’s regulation” would somehow solve everything.

    Replying to “hds”, I guess there were overly high expectations of citizen journalism, but again let’s not dismiss the entirety. There are bright spots, like Thoughtleader in fact – and many of the comments on contributions here like your’s and Kwame’s. It all adds up, and I think the population willy-nilly learns to discern what’s worthless, what’s insignificant (i.e. much personal news and views coming from citizen journalists), and what’s meaningful, interesting and helpful.


    It was pretty scary to read about the readership norms in Italy – only reading what we like to hear.

    Koos Kombuis challenged Thought Leader readers to expand their reading a couple of months ago. I added The Sowetan and Die Burger to my media webpages and am never disappointed at getting a different look at current issues.

    I was pleased at your urging to take the best from the growing SA-BRIC relationship – and we stil need to speak out about the things in these partner countries that do not sit well with us.

    I have been discouraged about the future of independent journalism, but am pleased to see that this is being debated and researched.

  • Rory Short

    I look for fresh life relevant information and thoughtful comment and analysis. That is what I want from the media. I am not interested in, nor have I the time for, gossip and celeb’s comings and goings.

    Preferably this information should be delivered to my desk top via the internet. This requires working journalists and I would certainly be prepared to pay as I read for quality material.

  • Peter Joffe

    Read the writings of Karl Marx and then see how they are being applied to South Africa? Freedom of the press and the rule of law have no place in his teachings. South Africa is following his lead toward a total dictatorship or a one party dictatorship. Are we a semi communist state? Are we moving to a communist or Marxist society? The only way to stay in power forever is to suppress all opposition and that is being done in South Africa – NOW. What the proleteriate says – goes and laws are there to ensure the tenure of the proletariat, not to protect the citizens. All that matters is the Party or the Dictator.

  • hds

    The consensus in media seems to be that unless you charged for content from the very beginning, it’s too late to start now. And the New York Times’ TimesSelect model, in which you paid a monthly fee for “premium” content–the op-ed writers, the magazine, and some special features–failed and the paper was forced to go back to offering everything for free.

    I wonder about the extent to which paying for online news will further make the news the province of the moneyed classes. News has traditionally been very cheap, if not free; when I was growing up in Texas in the 1980s, the Houston newspaper was a quarter. That’s accessible to anyone. Putting the news online already makes it more inaccessible in an age when the digital divide haunts us, and charging for it makes it further so–because even if the amount charged is nominal, you’ll have to have a credit card to pay for it. That immediately eliminates a huge portion of the population.

  • Garg Unzola

    News is not the providence of the moneyed classes. Radio is the most prevalent form of media in South Africa mostly because it is accessible to the poor. And then the poor like to hear news.

    I think the way in which Twitter solves its revenue problem – if it does manage to solve it – would be the trend setter for online news sources.

    Paying for online news has not fared well and further goes to demonstrate that news is not in fact the providence of moneyed classes. If it is then those moneyed classes are not too keen to part money for news.

  • hds

    I would agree with you, Garg Unzola, that paying for news has not been successful. I believe the only ones it has worked for are those (the Wall Street Journal maybe?–I’m too lazy to look; also mags like the Economist) which have charged from the beginning of their online presence. One cannot go from offering something for free to charging for it. Had it not been free to begin with, it’s possible that a subscription model could have worked, at least for a handful of the brand name news services. But even some that started out by charging, like Salon, have had to let go of that. People are simply disinclined to pay for internet content, it seems (with the apparent exception of porn).

    I don’t listen to the radio in SA (don’t have a radio)–is the news well reported? While there are some great news radio programs–NPR and BBC come to mind–my issue with broadcast news, whether TV or radio, has been that it generally does not have the depth or nuance of the best of print, partly because of time restrictions on segments. I’ll read a lengthy print piece because it’s portable and I may leave it and come back to it, which I can’t do with broadcast media.

  • Garg Unzola

    It is very difficult to start charging for something that was handed out free, but it is not impossible. One way to solve this problem is to add value to your product. Computer games are a great example. Often, gamers play with pirated computer games but they cannot participate on certain servers if they don’t purchase a product key. Purchasing a product key gives them access to exclusive content that they could not otherwise get as it was never part of the initial pirated game package. Which brings us back to the scenario where news has more entertainment value than information value.

    It also illustrates that consumers have to see and feel the real difference between getting news for free and paying for news online. Wall Street Journal and The Economist are both fairly niche markets, though you can access their articles free (not sure if that applies to all of them, I just get to read an article on their sites now and again without subscribing).

    The quality of news on the radio differs. I sometimes listen to a sports broadcast on SABC radio because the incompetence is staggering, stuttering and greatly entertaining. The quality of news is slightly better, but not much. Though again I think generally people listen to news more out of curiosity and for entertainment value than to analyse the situation in the Middle East.

  • X Cepting

    The comments against the idea of paying for news are pretty endemnic of South African ideology: The West tried and failed so we won’t bother trying.

    Every day, children download music files on their cellphones. They pay for this on a song-by-song basis. Subscriptions do not work because mostly the quality of news is not worth it. I would not pay for a newspaper online, no, not if it included the usual sprinkling of self-absorbed rantings by pseudo-journalists. What I would consider paying for is an article that catches my eye by a respectable journalist. A Credit card is not the only way to pay, cellphone contracts prove this. This way journalists would have to fight for market share like any other independant businessman and the quality of his work would sell him. The lesser endowed journalists would not be able to hide behind his work. The internet and cell technology makes not only free speech possible but freedom to purchase quality. I would not pay for the Mail & Guardian but will pay for some articles, those that inform and teach me.

  • hds

    @X Cepting: that’s a very interesting point, but (and I will reveal my pie-in-the-sky idealism here) I don’t know that I entirely cotton to the idea of journalists fighting for revenue. Some of the best stories are months in the researching and writing, and only with the financial backing of a news outlet can journalists go off and immerse themselves in that for a while. And some of the best stories–perhaps *most* of the best ones, in terms of the quality of writing and the significance and complexity of the topic–are ones that may not get lots of readers. It may not pay for itself. I think many times news outlets rely on their infotainment sections to fund their more obscure but newsworthy stories, in much the same way that the revenue from American football at any major US university goes to fund the women’s lacrosse team and probably a chunk of the chemistry department. (I’m reminded of the scene from “Good Night and Good Luck” in which the head of CBS reminds Edward Murrow that the news department actually costs the company money, but they provide it as a public service funded by the entertainment programs.)

    I’m not saying it can’t work, just that, as always, the devil’s in the details.

    I’m curious: what newspapers, magazines and other online news sources do you folks read?

  • X Cepting

    @hds – I agree that researching and making a story costs and Madam & Eve probably funds a large portion but perhaps it is because of what people have come to expect from newspapers. Media themselves have trained readers to expect entertainment, it probably started with trying to fill a daily newspaper. Take the tabloids for instance, you get blood, skin, sport, your future, hope and a crossword in equal measures and it is a diet of entertainment. What it is not is news. Perhaps time for journos to get out if the entertainment business and back into news/information/knowledge dispersal business. I enjoy Guy Berger’s articles because they are usually of this nature. Time for some journos to start doing hard graft for the money and position they enjoy. That, I will pay for.

  • X Cepting

    I make my point badly. Let me put it differently. People not used to making decisions or having a say in their society could not care less about real news, they are not a part of it. There are many ways in which newspapers can involve society, yet they are not. How about the daily petition instead of the daily crossword? How about joining the fight to get internet in every home? Once that happens, I bet you even the tabloids will be downloaded and paid for.