Current threat to our free press

Recently a grand-looking box covered in chocolate-coloured linen and tied with a Regency-striped ribbon was delivered to one of my colleagues. Inside the box, swaddled in layers of duck-egg-blue tissue paper, lay the gift itself: a bath towel sporting the monogrammed legend ”Regency Hyatt Hotels Oubaai Resort & Spa”.

In the media we call this a freebie. This is a time-honoured PR way to get an invitation to a launch or a new product noticed by journalists who are very busy, mostly trying to wade past all the other invitations — branded umbrellas, coffee mugs, beaded egg whisks, cooler bags, braai tongs — to find their desktops and get to the real work.

Moments later the big chocolate box and its contents had been stripped like a stolen car in a chop shop. I got the ribbon; a senior news reporter carried off the tissue paper to press and reuse; the box is still contested and may have to go to tender.

As for the new owner of the towel, he says he’s not bothered that his houseguests will think he stole it from the Hyatt. Anyway, he claims that his only other towel — which says Property of Sandton City — has become so old and stiff that when he dropped it on the bathroom floor the other day, it broke.

We are in a recession and this is no time for the sin of pride. The credit crunch has hit everyone hard, but arguably none so hard as journalists. On top of industry-wide pay freezes and bonus cuts, journalists across this country have noticed a disturbing new trend: a sharp downturn in freebies.

Quality incentives to write flattering stories — like being flown to Madagascar to better appreciate the Toyota Hilux, or receiving a bottle of wine older than the first democratic elections — are over. Such extravagances have been replaced by car launches at which several new models are unveiled simultaneously, with a plate of cheese sandwiches. Movie critics are fobbed off with jars of popcorn instead of all-expenses-paid trips to Los Angeles to interview Brad Pitt.

A bank that once gave clients lush stuff like mini bar fridges is, I hear, currently handing out stress balls. I tell ya, it’s hard out here.

”We still get quite a lot of free pens,” reported one colleague truthfully, ”but they’re really crap.”

A business reporter wistfully recalled the enormous chocolate cake Cell C sent him on his last birthday. He rallied a bit when I reminded him that he still holds the office record for receiving the biggest ever freebie flash drive.

Most media releases these days are given to reporters on flash drives, which pile up in newsrooms like the eThekwini sardine run. The ”freebie” part is the extra storage space one scores on a standard 1GB drive when the release itself takes up no more than say 400MB. But at a recent SABC presser, journalists were given 16GB flash drives — providing the kind of waste-not-want-not space that would see most journalists comfortably into retirement.

The SABC 16-gig flash drive has become a freebie legend, one that undoubtedly played its part in the public broadcaster’s subsequent bankruptcy. I felt just terrible when I read this week that Sello Maake ka Ncube had joined the relay hunger strike to protest against the SABC’s cutting of local content (because of bankruptcy). ”I sit there and wonder why I should eat and think of ways to better this industry,” the famous actor was quoted as saying on his eighth day. Our political correspondents have the opposite problem thanks to budget cuts in Parliament: they think of ways to get food while wondering why they should cover portfolio committee meetings. ”There used to be scones with jam and cream at teatime, chicken wings at lunch and dreamy shortbread in the afternoon —” lamented one reporter, ”now there’s just tea and coffee.”

Corporate goodie bags, traditionally handed out to departing guests, were once a highlight of one’s career in journalism. Now they’re more like baddie bags: I heard of one the other day that contained a La Mer tester with ”Not For Sale” stamped on the back.

On the upside, expensive company team-building weekends have become so last fiscal. Inter-departmental drumming, trust games involving beanbags and blindfolds and being deployed into the Drakensberg with a bar of chocolate and a tampon, appear, mercifully, to be over.

Also, one of our most senior analysts has signalled hope for a brighter future in our industry: ”With the end of the year approaching, I predict that freebies will start to pick up.”

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Charlotte Bauer
Guest Author

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