Time and time again I hear it said that the quality of journalism is deteriorating in South Africa. Frankly this is rubbish — what is declining is the quality of the audience. The source of this criticism is a society that has become a carcass of fat and bone with very little meat.

The sad reality, if you ask any online news publisher about their most popular stories, is that “man fucks donkey” comes up quite high and yet the audience have the audacity to point fingers at the journalists and media houses for giving them what they want.

So, while established newspapers kept relatively flat circulation figures for most of the year, Die Son, a pillar of modern day journalism, passed the point where it was selling half a million copies a day. Let’s consider what this means for quality journalism.

Firstly, the traditional papers that focused on quality are not growing because there is clearly not a growing interest in quality information from the reader pool, or they are getting it elsewhere. Given the lack of widespread internet access one could assume the possible sources of this alternative high-quality journalism are … the SABC News or e.tv, or the radio.

Secondly, journalism doesn’t pay well, especially when your publication isn’t growing its readership. It used to be the case that journalists did what they do partly out of a sense of public service, but it’s pretty hard to get inspired about the public when no one respects what you do anymore. The insult: armchair journalists sitting in their living-rooms watching Cheaters like it’s the news while blathering on about how unreliable the news media is.

Thirdly, in order to cut costs many media houses rely heavily on wire services and the end result is a news landscape that lacks diversity. There are a few papers that still invest in investigative journalism, but they are far from popular in the grander scheme of things.

Now, some may argue very convincingly that the reason the audience has become so apolitical and slightly intellectually retarded is really the fault of the media in the first place. Actually I think it’s laziness and a sense of entitlement — it takes work to remain politically interested when you are no longer forced to by a dire and unacceptable situation like apartheid. With democracy and capitalism come uniformity and a lulling consumerist mediocrity, where entertainment rather than the realisation of loftier political ideals becomes the primary objective of society.

The fact remains that no matter how much we blame the American entertainment industry for turning us into drones, there is nothing stopping people from taking the decision to start thinking again — except that it might take a little effort. Lamenting the quality of the media doesn’t help — rather put your money where your mouth is and support publications that do care about quality. Who knows, things might change?


Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher

Vincent Maher was the Mail & Guardian Online's digital strategist. He has worked in the web industry for 12 years, was the head of the New Media Lab at the Rhodes University School of Journalism and...

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