One final honk

This is the 200th edition of this column, written to appear on October 19 — South Africa’s National Press Freedom Day.

It’s also the swansong of Converse. In fact, swans probably don’t actually sing as they sign off. Most likely they issue a final honk to salute a life well-lived.

South Africa’s swan equivalent is probably a hadeda — nosing around the country’s media in search of a juicy grub or two. And I’ve had much to feast upon over the duration of the column.

So why is this particular beak going quiet after seven years? In fact the fortnightly Converse contributions, which began back in July 2003, ought to have ceased at the end of 2009 when the Mail & Guardian gave notice they could no longer pay for them.

I delayed Converse’s death by recruiting a funder — the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung — who saw value in supporting the column for a year.

That lengthened-lifespan came to an end when this author decided to take research leave from Rhodes University in 2011, and to take a break from doing journalism at the same time.

Now, though, it’s necessary to officially wrap up writing Converse, since I’ll soon be migrating north, heading to Paris to work for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

To run a media-watch column for local readers, you need to be steeped in local media issues. That won’t be my diet anymore. The remit in the new post is much wider than specifically South Africa; it means giving attention to media freedom and media development globally.

That I could be chosen to join Unesco is in part because of this column. Every two weeks over the many years, I’ve been compelled to get to grips with a range of media topics.

Over the years, I’ve tried to give depth and perspective on issues such as:

  • Editorial independence (including the firing of Mathatha Tsedu as Sunday Times editor).
  • The City Press coverage shenanigans around the Bulelani Ngcuka “spy” story
  • The rocketing of tabloid newspapers.
  • Drama around threats to the autonomy of broadcasting licensing body Icasa, not to mention the sensational stuff about the soul (and purse of ) SABC.
  • Digital media freedom, internet trends, and the prospects for cellphone journalism.
  • Migration to digital television.
  • Fifa, African stereotypes and media corruption.
  • Debates on self-regulation, media diversity and attacks on the press.
  • Race and the media.
  • Journalism education and training.
  • Transparency and access to information.
  • Coverage of Aids, poverty, ICT and gender.
  • Ethics and journalistic performance.
  • Many of these issues remain evergreen concerns and complexities. But the media keeps changing. In 2007, I wrote “New tools to crack your media consumption”. Today, Google Alerts is about the only one still valid.

    Converse first appeared in the era before blogging, and long before Facebook. Nevertheless, the debut edition requested readers to interpret the title as an opportunity for dialogue. “Make community with me in this interchange of ideas and information,” I wrote.

    Many did exactly that, constructing a lively online discussion about the mishaps and masterpieces in media’s role in this fractious country. In that sense, Converse also revealed another way of interpreting its name — whatever the perspective I gave, there was usually at least one other side brought forth by a reader.

    Knowing South Africans, I’m sure that such “convers-ation” will thrive even though it’s time for this particular voice to bid adieu. The debate continues around many other media commentaries such as Anton Harber’s pieces, on Jocoza, in the Rhodes Journalism Review, at TheMedia magazine, the South African National Editors’ Forum website, at Media Monitoring Africa, Bizcommunity and so on.

    Further, while this Converse swan gives a final croak, it’s also now being supplanted by tonnes of “tweets” on media issues. If, amongst the cacophony, you find something to inspire your own regular commentary, do send me the link.


    This column is made possible by support from fesmedia Africa, the Media Project of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Africa, The views expressed in it are those of the author.

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    Guy Berger
    Guy Berger
    Director: Policies & Strategies in the field of Communication and Information at UNESCO

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