South Africa’s national newspapers and newsrooms are buckling under the financial strain of a changing media world. But it is local newspapers that are hardest hit.
According to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures released this week, overall newspaper circulation for the second quarter has fallen 6.9% year on year.
Local newspapers have slumped 8.6% and free, community-based newspapers are down 6.2%.
With less money coming in, national newspapers are being forced to make cuts to budgets and staff. Bigger newspapers owned by large media houses have more room to manoeuvre. Local newspapers don’t have that safety net and are facing the threat of closure altogether. And they say they need help.
Local newspapers such as The Winelands Echo in Paarl have been around for more than a decade. But with little income from advertising by large companies and the slow disbursement of funds from government agencies such as the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), these newsrooms are staring down the barrel of a gun.
“Our business is in jeopardy — we are supposed to print two editions a month,” said Joseph Bushby, publisher of The Winelands Echo.
The 100% black-owned newspaper was established in 2004 and distributes more than 10 000 free copies to the suburbs and townships in the Winelands and Boland regions in the Western Cape.
“I want to become sustainable. I don’t want a financial grant all the time. So how do we become sustainable? That’s only by the support from corporates doing their business in our communities,” Bushby said.
For publishers such as Bushby, it’s all about local people telling their own stories. Voices, he said, that regional and national papers often don’t take notice of.
“It’s not fair for someone outside your community to come in and tell you what you need, what you want and what your problems are. We want to own, control and write our own stories. But it’s not easy. Your editorial must be underpinned by your financial support,” he said.
Bushby lamented what he calls the proliferation of tabloid newspapers in poorer areas and said these newspapers make sales at the expense of the predominantly black readers they serve.
“I have a production background. I used to work for a large printing press. I noticed the need for us to have our newspaper here in the Winelands region. Our editorial policy is different from that of the major newspapers,” he said. “So when I see titles, like tabloid newspapers, superimposed on our community, it is stories that are only negative about our people. And that’s why our motto is ‘You are what you read’.”
Bushby believes it is inaccurate to say that South Africans have stopped reading newspapers; they are interested in reading what interests and affects them directly.
“People want to read their own stories. People read newspapers when they see themselves in the paper. And I want to build our people’s self-esteem [with positive stories about themselves] because it was broken down during apartheid,” he said.
Some community media organisations have opted to launch crowd-funding campaigns to help keep the lights on.
Bush Radio, in Salt River, Cape Town, has been broadcasting since 1993, the year before South Africa’s first democratic elections.
The broadcaster started as an anti-apartheid initiative and has since become a broad community-based radio station, filling the airwaves with English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa programmes.
In a briefing to the communications portfolio committee, Parliament heard that the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa had licensed 255 community radio broadcasters. Although still in its infancy, the number of community-based television stations is also growing.
But most of these community broadcasters are facing an uncertain financial future.
“Our financial sustainability as a community-based organisation is our biggest issue,” said Brenda Leonard, Bush Radio’s managing director. “It affects everything we do. Our marketing, our monthly fees to [broadcast signal distributor] Sentech, our Samro [South African Music Rights Organisation] fees for music that we way play, paying staff.
“If we had sufficient money that would then mean we wouldn’t have trouble continuing our programming, but also our outreach and our media training.”
Proponents of community-based media argue their role in South Africa’s democratic project is overlooked and underestimated and that the national and regional media often shirk their responsibility in educating, informing and entertaining citizens.
“Cape Town is still so segregated, along racial and class lines. And Bush Radio becomes that safe space where you can talk. From Brackenfell to Gugulethu, we make those connections. We bring communities together,” said Leonard.
The station’s programming manager, Adrian Louw, said Bush Radio, like many similar radio stations, survives from month to month.
“Community radio stations find themselves in positions where they struggle to pay the South African Revenue Service; they have Sentech bills piling up,” Louw said. “When it comes to our rent, it’s like the sword of Damocles hanging over us. I don’t know if I’ll come to the office one morning and the landlord will lock us out.”
MDDA, the state agency responsible for promoting local and emerging media, said community radio stations owe about R50-million to Sentech alone.
There are also outstanding fees to Samro and outstanding payments to the South African Revenue Service (Sars).
The agency’s chief executive, Zukiswa Potye, said it is working with Sentech, Samro and Sars to help alleviate the bills burden facing small media.
“We brought these stakeholders in to find out can we find a long-lasting solution to the challenges that threaten the viability of the sector,” she said.
The MDDA says that instability in the agency has meant funds have been slow to get to grant recipients.
“We must take responsibility for the instability of the entity. It made us lose some funders, including the mainstream print media. They left us and said we are too unstable and that is the truth,” Potye said.
“We had a backlog of R600-million for small commercial print and we had more than 80 applications on the broadcast side, worth about R250-million.”