The global economic crisis has cut a swath of destruction through the media in many countries. Hardest hit, perhaps, have been newspapers in the United States and Europe.
Some newspapers have closed their doors; others have given up paper and ink versions for the lower costs of websites; yet others have laid off hundreds of staff. According to studies quoted in a recent Columbia University report titled The Reconstruction of American Journalism, the total number of editorial staffers employed on US newspapers has dropped from 60 000 in 1992 to about 40 000 — a level previously seen in 1972.
The global meltdown can’t be blamed alone for this drastic shift — it has merely accentuated some long-running trends. The internet is a key factor, attracting growing audiences and making it possible for anybody to become a publisher. In many ways the media have gone back to an earlier age, before the cost of starting a media enterprise ran into the millions.
Large media companies with massive overheads now face competition from anybody with a PC, broadband and a good idea. The techno-optimists point to the enormous opportunity this opens up for democratic discussion, citizen journalism and the like. The techno-pessimists point to the vast volume of rubbish that is out there.
In truth both are right. There is a richness of voices and information on the web that previous generations could only dream of — but there is also the 15-year-old down the road farting into a candle on YouTube, as Kagiso Media’s Omar Essack pointed out recently.
The recession has devastated advertising budgets, while the internet has soaked up an increasing share. According to figures presented by Professor Richard Collins of the Open University at the recent Joburg Radio Days conference, the total advertising sector in the United Kingdom shrank by about 16% in the first half of 2009, whereas online took a larger share than TV for the first time this year.
The problem is that the traditional business model that has sustained print journalism, whereby a combination of cover price and advertising income pays the bills, is under threat and may be on the way out.
The web audience is very hesitant to pay for what it gets. And although online advertising has been growing, it has not yet grown enough to sustain the equivalent of a traditional newsroom.
Pro Publica, a US independent investigative journalism group, makes the point that the internet provides a lot of opinion, but little original reporting: “We face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources of facts on which those opinions are based are shrinking.”
The question exercising many in the US media is this: who will pay for journalism? It’s a critical question, because democracy needs vigorous, independent journalism.
The Columbia study argues forcefully that “American society must take some collective responsibility for supporting independent news reporting in this new environment.” They recommend tax breaks for independent groups doing journalism, contributions from philanthropic foundations, the involvement of university journalism schools and much else.
Others have criticised the study for giving up too easily on the profit motive, saying there are new business models that can be developed to sustain journalism.
As South African media, what should we make of this discussion? I don’t believe we should simply assume that the US situation is where we will be in five or 10 years’ time. Thankfully, South Africa is not fated to follow the path of the North, always a couple of steps behind, as some assume.
The demographics of our audiences are different and therefore so are the economics of our media. South African newspapers have never had as much fat to lose: the Los Angeles Times‘s newsroom has shrunk from 1 100 people to 600 — no South African newsroom comes even close to those reduced numbers.
But it would be foolish to ignore the issue, because trends in the South African media may be different in pace and scale but are not completely absent.
Already, new models are being tried here, too. Some universities are beginning to play a greater role in day-to-day journalism through grants and reporting projects that involve their students. Some NGOs are producing journalistic material — of varying quality — for use by cash-strapped mainstream media. And media houses are exploring different ways of using the web.
These new models may not yet provide a viable alternative to the traditional approach. But it is a time for experimentation, of trying new approaches.
These experiments may even deliver better journalism. And that would be in all our interests.