/ 20 December 2020

The Covid-19 media survival guide

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The M&G offices emptied out during the Covid-19 pandemic, and now most of the staff work from home. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

At the beginning of 2020, Mail & Guardian chief executive Hoosain Karjieker was feeling upbeat about the year ahead. After a difficult 2019, marred by retrenchments, plans to rebuild were already in the pipeline.

Then Covid-19 hit. “When we realised that this was real, we started considering what impact it would have on the business. But it never prepared us for the shock that we had when it happened,” Karjieker says from his office overlooking the now empty desks once filled by journalists.

The impact of the pandemic and the lockdown on the media industry was swift, hitting the advertising revenues that were keeping already fragile organisations afloat. Magazines divisions were shut; the M&G and other newspapers announced salary cuts.

The M&G was fortunate to survive 2020, Karjieker says. 

On how to ensure the newspaper continues to keep its head above water, he adds: “What is becoming more and more clear to everyone is that quality content is what underpins our ability to survive. If you are not going to deliver that to our readership, people will leave and go somewhere else.”

M&G chief executive Hoosain Karjieker says the newspaper is fortunate to have survived 2020. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Journalism counts

Media researcher Reg Rumney says the outlook for the future of the media industry is bleak. Earlier this year, Rumney compiled a report for the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) on the effects Covid-19 has had on journalism.

“I look at the future with trepidation. We already have a shrinking media sector … It’s just very, very scary and very tough,” he says.

Most print media has not yet managed to bounce back after the blow Covid-19 dealt to advertising and circulation revenues, Rumney says. 

“But when the bounceback comes we should be more focused and better able to take advantage of it.”

If independent media survives it may look very different to before, Rumney says. 

“We need to think of revenue in   different terms. We have to look to readers to support journalism. They must see the value … There will be opportunities, but the old commercial model is not there anymore.”

In an ideal world, he later adds, “journalism counts”. 

“Journalism has to be put at the centre … It’s about that essential, truth-seeking element of journalism,” Rumney says.

You either give up, or you don’t

Press ombudsman Pippa Green says many journalists and media organisations are still determined to continue doing their jobs. But, she says, there is a concern that the financial setbacks for newsrooms will affect the credibility of the news.

“It’s not just reporters. The reporters do their jobs. They get the story. But they also need the kind of guidance that my generation had from editors, which are too few and far between,” she says.

In these difficult financial conditions, “you either give up, or you don’t”, Green says. 

“And if you don’t, you have to make sure that what you’re putting out to the public is credible.”

Green adds that it is important the media can offer the public an alternative source of accurate information to social media. “It’s difficult. Reporting costs money and editors cost money. All of these things cost money. But it’s like trying to save on a car without making brakes.”

Readers must see value: Press ombud Pippa Green is concerned that the financial setbacks suffered by newsrooms will affect the credibility of the news in the future. (Ruvan Boshoff)

Avoid the downward spiral

Sanef executive director Kate Skinner  shares the concern that Covid-19’s financial blow could see media ethics starting to slip. She says cutting staff is not a long term strategy for saving newsrooms, but “a downward spiral”.

“Because, with less staff, how are you ever going to cover the stories that you need to cover? And also on the ethics issues, how are you making sure that you have checked the facts, that you really have looked at all the different angles of it and that you’re not just rushing to publish?”

In 2021, media sustainability has to become a priority. 

“What kind of innovations, at all levels — policy and funding — are there? All of those things have to be at the top of our minds.”

Skinner adds that it is essential to ensure that organisations are producing quality media. 

“And then you look at the financial model that you need to have in place to ensure that. That is what we need to look at in 2021.”

People, people, people

One sign that the death knell for print media has not yet rung was the release a few months back of the Daily Maverick’s 168 newspaper. 

Editor-in-chief Branko Brkic said the Daily Maverick newsroom’s ability to survive the pandemic is a combination of several factors: hard work, luck and a loyal readership willing to pay for the news.

“I’m not going to lie and say it was easy. It was not easy. But we are proud of how we have done things. We didn’t retrench. We didn’t cut any salaries. We did quite the opposite. We employed more people during the worst crisis to hit the media in a generation,” Brkic says.

“We were very lucky. But remember, you also train for your luck. You practise for your luck.”

Brkic adds that South Africa needs a lot more media organisations to be as lucky as the Daily Maverick has been. 

“The country needs a bunch of strong, vibrant, energetic media houses to respond to what is an extensional crisis,” he notes

To sustain this, Brkic says, it is down to people. “If you don’t have the best people with you, and if you don’t help them feel good about what they do and proud about what they have accomplished, then you have a problem.

“Because the media is not the world in which people are going to become rich. But what we can do is give people a chance to have a meaningful life or make a meaningful contribution to our community.”

He later adds: “People do stuff. Not brand names. If there is anything that the pandemic has taught us all is that as long as you have the best people, you will be successful. I cannot repeat this enough: people, people, people.”

Making women’s stories visible

Women are still under-represented in the media. According to research by Media Monitoring Africa on Covid-19 coverage, women only represented 21% of all sources quoted in the news.

This is where Quote this Woman comes in. The database of credible women experts that is made available to journalists for free is aimed at closing the gender representation gap.

Kathy Magrobi, who founded the database in 2019, told the Mail & Guardian that the project also aims to ensure that women’s stories aren’t left out of the popular narrative. 

“Women experience the world differently. Our lived experience every day is so different,” she said.

“And when women’s voices are absent in news stories, or in the way the media reflects the world, then our realities are just not reflected. So the issues that strongly affect women are just remaining invisible.”

Magrobi says most journalists think they quote more women than they actually do. 

“Because so much bias is unconscious. And it is not just that; newsrooms get busy, work gets more intense … So journalists are just juggling a lot more with a lot fewer resources. So it is whoever shouts the loudest.”

Quote this Woman is slowly making a difference. Still, its ability to survive relies on funding — something that has been put in jeopardy because of Covid-19, which has hit its media training business.

Magrobi is also concerned that the economic effects of Covid-19 on newsrooms could see women pushed out of journalism “We’re at such a pivotal moment in our history,” she says.

“Newsrooms are a microcosm of the country. If there are fewer women in newsrooms, then there are also fewer women in science labs who can be women experts. It keeps me awake at night.”