/ 20 June 2019

Controversy overshadows annual State of the Newsroom report

The report further paints a bleak picture of the treatment of journalists by media houses that are struggling to survive in a hostile economic climate.
The report further paints a bleak picture of the treatment of journalists by media houses that are struggling to survive in a hostile economic climate. (Delwyn Verasmay/M&G)

The 2018 ‘State of the Newsroom’ report, an academic reflection on the state of journalism in South Africa, paints a bleak picture of the state of news media in South Africa. Released on Wednesday, the report has also garnered controversy.

Former HuffPost SA and Mail & Guardian editor Verashni Pillay complained on Twitter about the use of a photo of her which inferred that she was the editor of HuffPost when it published Stratcom allegations against former M&G (then Weekly Mail) journalists Anton Harber and Thandeka Gqubule. The online version of the report was taken down, then changed after Pillay’s complaint. The updated version of the report however, did not include the name or picture of Pieter du Toit, who was editor at the time.

The M&G has also written to Harber and Wits Journalism, the publisher of the report, objecting to a section in which Harber claims that the newspaper’s absence from the Taco Kuiper Awards last year signals a decline in its investigative work and signs of a ‘troubled newsroom’.

The report further paints a bleak picture of the treatment of journalists by media houses that are struggling to survive in a hostile economic climate.

The 64-page report noted: “The spectre of job losses tightened its grip on the sector in 2018, as low advertising revenue took its toll on print and online titles and restructuring in the industry continued.”

It contains statistical insights into media trends and an overview of the year’s major developments and events. Though the different sections of the report contains survey data, these data sets were not developed using a common methodology.

The year was punctuated by the announcement that the SABC, which said that by March 2019 it would not be able to pay salaries, would cut 981 permanent jobs and 1 200 freelancers. The plan was suspended in the wake of civic and political criticism, but as the broadcaster’s financial woes show little sign of subsiding, the threat of retrenchments remains.

The report highlights the dwindling support for journalists amid wide-scale job losses.

Trade unions in newsrooms have been weakened: according to the report, the Media Workers’ Association of SA (Mwasa) had about 17 000 members in its heyday. In 2011, the SABC terminated its agreement with Mwasa after it reportedly failed to meet the public broadcaster’s 500-member threshold.

The report notes that 72% of 158 survey respondents said they had no union support during their retrenchments, but “most of these respondents did not belong to a union”. One reason given for journalists not joining unions is the apparent hostility of media companies to unions organising in their newsrooms. What has resulted is a “chronically disorganised sector”, in which companies “chewed and spat them out”.

The report further indicates that journalists who have survived the waves of job losses over the past decade are “having to do much more with much less”. Many of these cuts are being driven by changing “patterns of consumption” because fewer people are paying for news.

These findings are echoed in the Reuters Institute Digital News Report for 2019, released earlier this month. It found that 71% of South Africans use a “side-door” to access news, such as social media sites and news apps.

This change has been accompanied by a decline in trust in journalism. The Reuters report found that 70% of South African respondents struggle to separate fact from fiction online.

Holding trust isn’t being helped by the digitisation and budget cuts that have taken a toll on maintaining skilled newsrooms. The report says: “The traditional newsroom is basically decimated with very few subs [sub-editors] and beats, and no mentors for new entrants to the craft.” These cuts, with more people working on contracts, is also making it harder for unions to work in newsrooms.

According to the report, many journalists are thrown in the deep end as a result of a shrinking workforce. But the rights of journalists are not necessarily protected by their employers when this happens.

Six out of 10 respondents also said they were often asked to work overtime without compensation.

“These responses could suggest that many newsrooms can be hostile work environments, where the needs of journalists are often not respected, and where they are violated in different ways by work colleagues,” the report reads.

Read the original ‘State of the Newsroom’ report below: