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OPINION: The rise and fall of SA journalism

The 2020 World Press Freedom Day comes at a time when the South African newspaper industry and by extension our journalism faces what can at best be described a triple crisis - a crisis of credibility, shrinking profitability, and stagnant digital disruption.

The hurricane sweeping through the industry predates the yet to be calculated costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the rupture began almost a decade and a half ago.

In my 2005 thesis titled The Media Ethics and the Bulelani Ngcuka Spy Debacle, The Ranjeni Munusamy Affair, I concluded then that the ‘Ngcuka spy’ story and its resultant Hefer Commission probe demonstrated that the South African media had three deficits - trust deficit, credibility deficit, and leadership deficit. I couldn’t escape the sense of déjà vu in 2019 as I watched yet again on live telly, the unraveling of the Ranjeni Munusamy 2.0 saga.

For the second time, she was asked by theSunday Times to step aside. As the drama played itself out at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, it became clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Today, our local newspaper industry is in a state of flux. Over the last ten years, research shows that newspaper circulation has declined by a whopping 49% and the majority of newspaper owners seem to have no idea how to roll out successful hybrid subscription models that have worked elsewhere in the world.

Similarly, the number of professional journalists in the country has dwindled in the last decade to 2019. According to a 2018 State of the Newsroom report, it found that the journalist workforce in South Africa had been slashed by half over a decade, from 10,000 in 2008.

This situation obtains in other geographies as research says in Western capitalist societies the number of journalists has also decreased but the workload increased. This means journalists who remain on the frontlines, ‘confront heavier workloads and other significant changes in the conditions of their labour associated with digitalization.’

Media Monitoring Africa (MMM) has also lamented worrying trends when it comes to the quality of journalism in South Africa, with research showing how the number of sources in a story has dramatically declined in the past 10 years.

According to the office of the Press Council of South Africa (PCSA), which houses the Press Ombudsman and the public advocate, journalists often neglect to give subjects of critical reportage a right of reply, which more often than not leads to inaccurate and unfair reporting.

For instance, of 20 complaints received by the Press Ombudsman since December 2018, 11 resulted in a negative finding against journalists on several serious transgressions, including failure to report news truthfully, accurately, and fairly. Sarah Findlay, project coordinator: policy & quality unit at MMM, said this drop in quality was linked to untenable business models and vast retrenchments across the sector.

The depth of trust deficit between news media and its users is a worldwide phenomenon.

According to the Eighth Annual Digital News report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, public concern about misinformation stands at 55% on average across 38 countries surveyed.

There is no need to rehash the _Sunday Times _apology over a series of misleading reports and subsequent withdrawal of the same. But the credibility crisis goes beyond the corridors of the Sunday Times. South Africa’s trust in the news, rates eighth out of the 38 countries surveyed.

The water gets muddied further for online news media users.

According to the report, 70% of English-speaking South Africans, who use the internet, say they struggle to separate fact from fiction online.

And then, there’s the digitalization of advertising revenue that historically used to favour news media such as newspapers. In recent years, billions of rand in advertising revenue have shifted from traditional newspapers to digital behemoths such as Google and Facebook. It doesn’t help that more people spend more time online than any other activity.

According to the Global Digital Yearbook for 2019, South Africa has an internet penetration rate of 54%, according to the report, which represents a connected population of over 31 million people. Some 21 million of these people spend more time on Facebook than elsewhere. Investment in digital and mobile video spending has climbed steadily since 2016 and is expected to grow 68% by the end of the decade, according to research reports.

In half-hearted measures since 1994, newspapers and other media have started experimenting with internet-based journalism. Twenty-five years later, digital and online journalism is a confirmed reality and common practice in most geographies, research shows.

However, in SA the reality is that our newspaper industry took longer than their peers and perhaps readers to adopt digital technology. Thus, by the time they started flirting with digital publishing, the advertising revenues were already committed to the new players such as Facebook and Google. This then may explain the present crisis of shrinking profitability occasioned by the print newspapers’ circulation bloodbath.

As a result, the industry hasn’t found the winning hybrid combinations of print and digital publishing models that work. As an example, it was only in 2016 that the influential South African newspaper, the Sunday Times introduced what they call, ‘digital first’ as a strategy of publishing first on digital platforms. Subsequently, they launched the Times Select, a new digital-only daily publication complete with a paywall and an app.

The success, or lack thereof, is too early to tell without public disclosure or in-depth academic research. Our newspaper industry is ripe for digital disruptors or it may go the way of the Dodo.

Mncube is a 'Witness' columnist, author of 'The Love Diary of a Zulu Boy' (Penguin Random House), and a master's degree student in Journalism and Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.