Quality: ‘New Frame’ staff members in August 2018. The closure of the publication is a blow to the journalists, who want it to be transferred into the control of the people working there
The human-centred stories that usually filled the website of the left-leaning online publication New Frame have ceased and 25 employees are now involved in their own “fight for justice” pending the closure of the publication that was initially billed to have enough funding for 20 years.
Its editor-in-chief, Richard Pithouse, has said publicly that R122‑million was spent in the almost four years of the publications’ existence.
According to its final editorial, New Frame published almost 5 000 articles and reached an audience of five million people in its lifespan. But staff members have stated in various interviews that there was no marketing plan to try to find a wider reach.
Veteran journalist Darryl Accone resigned at the start of June and left the day before the closure was announced. He sat on a nine-person editorial management team that met weekly.
“Not once were the words ‘closure’ and ‘retrenchments’ uttered. Budget cuts, yes. Slimming down operations, reducing publishing, saving money, yes. It was the same for most of those nine people but it’s plausible to think that the most senior persons in the room might have known something about the possibility of imminent shutdown,” he says.
It was while inquiring about the need for budget cuts that staff members were called to a meeting and told they were being retrenched immediately, and that no more stories would be published.
Most of the staff members who spoke to the Mail & Guardian were reluctant to do so on the record, fearing it may affect their “possible” retrenchment packages.
The publication had one huge anchor donor in the form of American tech multi-millionaire and activist, Roy Singham, the founder of consulting company ThoughtWorks, and a self-proclaimed socialist whose ideology gelled with that of New Frame.
According to Accone: “The focus was on workers, the unemployed, the marginalised and the impoverished — traditionally neglected in the media here and abroad. In that sense, New Frame’s closure is a terrible loss to the country.”
Bonile Bam, a contributor to New Frame since January 2019, said she could not believe “this unique publication was closing its doors”.
“There is no social justice media platform that tackles issues like New Frame did, in the country. The publication was giving ordinary citizens in rural areas, townships, farms and mines more attention and less to political figures and celebrities.”
But, as Accone says: “Both the work and the environment changed over time. Of course, Covid was a huge disrupter but more than that, it was the creeping realisation that New Frame was not all we had thought it to be.
Accone alluded to managerial interference, saying: “Certain topics were untouchable — anything negative about Russia or China, for instance. Other subjects got more coverage than their news values would merit, for example, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party. But in the early days — say, the first year up to August 2019 — it was an exciting place to be, with everyone committed to telling stories that are very neglected in South Africa.”
Singham is based in China, and has business interests in that country.
The Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party is a South African political party founded in 2019 by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa and was convened by the union’s leader, Irvin Jim, to contest that year’s national elections. Its performance was dismal.
Singham is a known comrade of Jim. In an October 2021 address titled On the Road From Detroit to South Africa: Black Radical Internationalist Traditions, the software guru spoke about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and its South African connection.
He referenced Jim in the address, as well as S’bu Zikode, the founder and president of the militant shack dweller movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo. Abahlali threw its weight behind the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party in the 2019 elections.
Chris de Beer-Procter, a photojournalist who freelanced at New Frame for more than two years, spoke about the disappointment at not seeing the publication “become as well-established and impactful as it could have been”. Important stories often found their way to larger publications so that they could receive the attention they deserved, she said.
“The political leanings aside, it felt like as journalists, we were given the space to do human-centred journalism. I think it’s a huge loss to our media industry to lose that. Of course, our other publications in the country do this kind of journalism, too. But for New Frame, it felt to me like human-centred was the rule.”
De Beer-Procter had on average three assignments a month to complete for New Frame. She has added her signature to the online petition that wants to see the publication continue with additional funding.
Signed by activists, academics, journalists and readers, the petition says “the sudden closure of New Frame was done with no time afforded to New Frame’s staff to seek alternative funding that would sustain the publication”.
The petition calls on Singham to “transfer New Frame to the collective control of its journalists, administrative and visual teams and to continue to fund the publication for a period of seven months with no ideological strings attached in order to afford this independent news outlet the opportunity to raise enough funding to continue its existence”.
Asked if the thought of New Frame closing had ever crossed his mind before it happened, Pithouse said: “It was a profound shock for everyone … but I have to admit that we are not in a strong position to make a case to funders given our high costs and small audience.” According to Pithouse, it is “certainly a shared hope that in this [section 189 retrenchment] process we can look at a way to keep working”, but he added that it would be “extraordinarily challenging to get full funding for New Frame” in its current form. A new organisational and funding model would be necessary, he said.