Media Concentration in South Africa: Where are we going?

By Glenn Ashton · 7 Jan 2009

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Picture credit: Marcel Germain
Picture credit: Marcel Germain

The recent resignation of the editor of the Cape Times, Tyrone August, over what appears to be executive interference in the traditional structures of local newspapers, should set alarm bells ringing. His departure was evidently triggered by a shift towards the concentration of editing duties in a centralised base. This would appear to be an unhealthy move if we are to foster an open, diverse and free media in South Africa. August has been true to his name and has steered a vibrant newspaper in a mature and measured manner, taking a wide swathe of opinions into print.

If August's departure is insufficient warning of an ill wind blowing through the local media, the 'retrenchment' (aka firing) of Jeremy Gordin underlines these concerns. I seldom agreed with his take on things and disliked his 'Ms Blixem' alter ego, but he does write well. Whatever the case, it appears he was put out to pasture in a most cavalier manner.

Both of these events occurred within the South African arm of Independent News and Media Plc (INM), listed on the London Stock Exchange. It is notable that the INM group attracts almost 50% of total local adspend in newspapers, while it only represents around 30% of total newspaper circulation. Even though the South African operation of this group has increased its profitability, it appears that a bean counting corporate philosophy has the staff component firmly in the cross hairs in order to 'rationalise costs' and 'ensure sustainable profitability.' But the overtly aggressive manner in which this is happening has spurred an unprecedented shift toward unionisation amongst newspaper workers.

Such downsizing menaces a vibrant newspaper group which has played a formative role in the forging of the media in the new, democratic South Africa through the numerous titles controlled by INM. After all, what South African media aficionado is not familiar with 'The Star', 'The Argus', 'The Mercury', the 'Cape Times' and the 'Pretoria News', to name just a few?

INM now accounts for nearly 60% of the English newspaper media coverage. The only other real opposition comes from 'The Mail and Guardian' (M&G), as well as the nations biggest newspaper the 'Sunday Times', which appears to have successfully kicked off its own daily prodigy, 'The Times.' On the other side there is the reincarnated propaganda tool of the apartheid state, Naspers, with several good newspapers and a large on-line presence. While there remain some gritty independent newspapers out there, like the Sowetan, they are in a minority.

One must enquire whether this represents sufficient diversity to ensure a healthy local media. Can we rely on just three major newspaper groups for good balance in how our complex society is reflected in changing and uncertain times, both locally and internationally? Surely a more diverse and progressive media is desirable? And perhaps more importantly, can media serve the purpose of a social watchdog when the over-riding management premise is shareholder profit?

The amount of true investigative journalism reaching the market has diminished somewhat after consolidation within the local media since the early 1990s. We still have excellent investigative journalists such as Sam Sole and Stefaans Brummer of the M&G stable and Melanie Gosling, John Yeld and Tony Carnie of INM (interestingly all environmental journalists). But besides other fringe media, such as the ever-probing investigations by Noseweek Magazine, there has been a paucity of serious questions asked about the dominant 'free market' model in the print media. After all, too close an interrogation may rock the investment vessel conveying these interests.

Exactly what happened within INM to instigate Tyrone August's resignation? In effect there appears to be a centralised corporate rationalisation of an important component of news gathering and editing, namely the sub-editing desk. Sub-editing is a critical part of the style and character of any journalism. It is also known as copyediting and comprises of what is known as the five 'c's', namely to make the copy clear, correct, concise, comprehensible and consistent.

The risk of placing an entire group's sub-editing tasks under the control of a centralised sub-editing clearinghouse, as is evidently proposed by INM, firstly promotes a tendency towards homogeneity. But perhaps more importantly it suggests the imposition of a centralised corporate groupthink identity, which will tend to stifle both creativity and the diversity of opinion expressed in the pages of our daily media.

Newspapers are under global assault by new media, primarily led by Internet based news sources and publications, which steer the media toward far more accessible configurations than ever before. For instance, in the USA alone we have seen the recent failure or consolidation of several large news organisations, including flagship banners like the 'Los Angeles Times', the 'Chicago Tribune', the 'San Francisco Chronicle' and even the 'New York Times'. 

The ongoing lay-off of journalists and staff has had a sobering effect on the industry and the future appears grim for the sector. While the situation is not yet so dire in South Africa, media concentration, allied with contraction within these groups, echoes this global contagion across our local media landscape.  This appears rather strange given the double-digit profit and revenue gains by the INM group in South Africa. Just where has the altruism traditionally inherent in progressive media gone?

We must also consider whether this shift in the media is necessarily a bad thing. I know of many fellow freelancers who have written progressive articles questioning the 'free market' model, only to have them rejected by mainstream media outlets as too edgy or marginal to their readership. Surely such covert and overt neo-liberal corporate censorship must be strongly resisted? The move to on-line, ethically and morally uncompromised journalism appears a far better option.

The print media has historically supported a rather conservative, establishment agenda.  Rupert Murdoch is perhaps the most malign example of a lickspittle neo-conservative supporting capitalist media mogul but is not alone either contemporaneously or in journalistic times of yore. Look no further than Randolph Hearst for a model of single-minded agenda-driven capitalist promotion in what some regard as the heyday of journalistic objectivity, if such a beast ever existed. 

But then we have the other side of the coin, as epitomised by the Guardian Group in the UK and mirrored in many small, aggressively independent media outlets around the world. Our own Weekly Mail was a fine example. The modern version is best illustrated by the rise of internet based media portals such as Alternet, Znet, the Onion and TruthOut who publish and circulate articles that have never before reached such a wide audience. 

The global growth of computer connectivity will accelerate this trend and will hopefully shift from mainly western media consumers towards those in developing nations and even to nations that have traditionally laboured under extremely restrictive media regimes. The creation of authoritarian mechanisms like the so-called 'great firewall of China,' as efficient as they may be, will inevitably fail to prevent snippets of information slipping past the gatekeepers. These drips will eventually become a flood as the desire for unfettered access to information grows.

This news service, SACSIS, has also begun to fill a void in the media in South Africa by providing original, progressive articles for reprint or reference at no cost to either traditional or new media. This is part of the great international experiment with open source media, where progressive information is freely shared for the greater good.

I recall well my disgust at a presentation by the present ombudsman of INM, Peter Sullivan, at an international Environmental Journalism conference in Johannesburg some years back. When a local freelancer enquired whether INM would increase the amount of material sourced from freelance journalists, Sullivan disdainfully proclaimed that the group was not interested in freelancers and would continue to reduce its reliance on them. Nice move Peter.

And this has come to pass, making one ponder whether the retention of Sullivan ahead of August and Gordin is co-incidental? INM should engage in some serious navel gazing if it is to remain relevant and current in a changing world. And IOL, the internet offshoot of INM, simply does not cut it either, being little more than a rehash of stories culled from affiliated newspapers and news wires. 

The public is correctly leery of control of the media by corporate bean counters. The media is far more socially important than that. It is noteworthy that the biggest shareholder of INM is its CEO and founder, Tony O'Reilly. Is he more interested in protecting his own interests than in supporting good journalism?  Where is the balance to be found? Thank goodness philanthropic interests such as George Soros' Open Society Foundation and the Ford Foundation have taken up the slack to support true independent media reporting and analysis.

While several local groups have embraced the new media, there remains a paucity of local independent media outlets for hard-pressed freelancers with original and solid reportage to access and more relevantly, from which to earn their keep. The public is the final loser as its ability to understand current issues is diminished.

If we wish to maintain a vibrant and free media that is relevant to as wide an audience as possible we must look beyond the tabloid sensationalism that is increasingly fed to the masses to distract instead of inform. Look no further than the fast rising Sun type tabloids. Instead we must ask the hard questions in ways that both entertain and inform, while retaining the old imperatives of objectivity and impartiality to the greatest possible degree. Sensationalism for its own sake is counter-productive. 

We must ensure the opportunity to create a more vibrant, modern and equitable social model is not stifled by the vested interests in corporate owned and controlled media houses seeking to trivialise the important while trumpeting the banal.

Ashton is a writer and researcher working in civil society. Some of his work can be viewed at Ekogaia - Writing for a Better World. Follow him on Twitter @ekogaia.

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Anna Tanneberger
7 Jan

Importance of Experienced Sub Editors

It should be Randolph Hearst, not Hurst. Only an old and experienced sub-editor would have picked it up - someone old enough to remember the Patty Hearst saga. The older you get the more information is stored in the back of your head while working and the quicker and more effective you are in picking up errors and getting a feel for something that needs to be checked. Just putting in a good word for us oldies.

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Justin Arenstein
9 Jan

SOWETAN

Sowetan is not an independent paper. It is conglomerate owned. For a list of independent SA print media, visit www.independentpublisher.org

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Glenn Ashton
9 Jan

Comments

Thanks for the correction on Hearst - I only read a book about him in the past year and am followed the Patty Hearst saga with interest? Dont know how i slipped that one through! Perhaps we need a sub to pick up those little slips! There may be a few floating around if the INM saga runs its course.
re the Sowetans ownership, my bad - slipped up in not recalling its sale to Johncom and its now with Sunday Times, Financial Mail etc. thanks.

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