HomeOpinionImpact of Covid-19 on media sustainability

Impact of Covid-19 on media sustainability

Misa-Zimbabwe Report

THE global Covid-19 crisis has given rise to talk of a need “not to let a good crisis go to waste” to prompt much-needed systemic change.

For news media, the increased use of communications technology during self-isolation plus the difficulties of distributing and accessing newspapers and magazines revealed and widened the fissures in the business models of legacy media while boosting broadcasting and online platforms — along with starving all news media of advertising.

A superficial examination of the data available for the countries in the Southern African region reveals that geographical location hides great diversity. The countries of Southern Africa vary in wealth, size, population, language and urbanisation.

What all have in common is a colonial history, many of them being formerly British colonies, including those examined in this study. The media landscapes of many were marred in the post-colonial era by censorship or State monopolies of news production.

It was only in the 1990s did the collapse of communism, symbolised by the fall of the Berlin wall, and the concomitant fading of the dream of African socialism marked by centralised control of communication, allow liberalisation and news media.

The proliferation of independent, private newspapers, radio stations and TV broadcasters accompanied what could be seen as paradigm shift in communication policy.

The global Covid-19 crisis has given rise to talk of a need “not to let a good crisis go to waste” to prompt much-needed systemic change.

For news media, the increased use of communications technology during self-isolation plus the difficulties of distributing and accessing newspapers and magazines revealed and widened the fissures in the business models of legacy media while boosting broadcasting and online platforms — along with starving all news media of advertising.

The resulting disruption has accelerated shifts that were already under way to the online environment, featuring demands for subscriptions to read articles i.e. retreats behind paywalls, as well as sparking innovation, for instance increasing the use of e-paper editions, simulations of physical newspapers and magazines.

Whether this is another paradigm shift or not is unknown, but what is certain is that the news industry has been suddenly and dramatically shaken, and that the very existence of news production and journalism has been seen as being under threat.

In turn, a new focus is needed on sustainability in the sense of the business of news, essentially who will pay for the news and how will it be paid for in a way that allows a degree of independence

Findings

Much publicity has been given to the abuse of power visited on the news media as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, and indeed journalists have had their lives and their livelihoods endangered by the crisis and heavy-handed and malicious enforcement of regulations.

The use of law to try to combat disinformation or misinformation also threatened freedom of expression and freedom of information. Moreover, governments have relied on a top-down, one-way channel of communication.

To quote Zoe Titus of the Namibian Media Trust: “I am really concerned about the broader implications for independent journalism and media freedom down the line, because people are not as critical of what is happening. And looking at the bigger picture, they are not fearful of the fact that this might become the new normal.”

The financial threat may be more serious. All the countries in the region face a withered media ecosystem. The research, it is hoped, illustrates the enormous blow that has been dealt, particularly to the private, independent news media in the Southern African region, news organisations that were often operating in a legislatively and financially hostile environment before the crisis that exacerbated the situation and made rapid the migration from print to the online environment.

The migration online cuts costs drastically but also decreases potential ad revenue, making the search for reader revenue urgent, whether it is from membership or from donor funding.

Reader revenue through subscription or membership seems in doubt for most countries in the region, with the exception perhaps of Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho, because of high levels of poverty.

Indeed, the notion of news as a public good has especial force where many citizens cannot even because of lack of access to the internet and poverty get their news from the web.

The obvious answer, the public broadcasters, is ruled out until state media really become public broadcasters rather than extensions of the state, and the same applies to state media on other platforms and captured media.

It is true that a majority of the population in the region must get their news from broadcasters, radio or TV, so focusing on the press or its modern equivalent might seem perverse. But independent newspapers generate news which cannot be ignored by broadcasters.

The enthusiasm for cracking down on private news media still in evidence in the region shows that the independent news still plays its role of “afflicting the comfortable”.

Internet access and its cost, not examined in great detail here, are decreasing, in some countries more than others. Mobile phone prices have plunged, and new forms of distribution such as e-papers increase access. Yet in an era of extreme financial pressure, media capture promises to reverse the gains of press freedom by making advertising even more dependent on political support.

This also applies to the journalists, whose new depths of salaries must make brown-envelope journalism seem like a necessity rather than a choice.

The need for donor funding, judiciously applied, is greater than ever. This encompasses organisations that support journalists as well as news organisations.

In South Africa, the South African National Association of Journalists as well as the South African Freelance Association have supplied monetary support for journalists as well as providing advice services, such as advising on what paperwork was needed for journalists to move around freely during the lockdown period.

Donor funding can also help organisations, and should be employed to help organisations navigate the murky waters when migrating online.

It is remarkable that an online-only, hybrid commercial-donor funded news organisation can more easily start a newspaper than for profit newspapers can profitably and easily move online.

It is worth noting that none of the publishers in the region or the world can afford to shut down their print publications entirely. At the same time, the Covid-19 crisis should bring with it greater realisation that the business of the media is business.

In the days of geographical news monopolies, routines and ways of working developed which separated the audience form the journalists and freed, in fact prohibited, media practitioners from involvement in the business side of the news.

Financial exigencies have caused the Chinese wall between editorial and commercial to crumble, especially for the small, nimble start-ups such as 263 Chat we value for their propensity for and ability to experiment.

Being business-like does not mean pursuing click-bait practices and the newspaper equivalent of heightened sensationalism at all costs that cannot be ethically justified. And as has been illustrated vividly in South Africa by the SARS Rogue Unit scandal examined by Professor Anton Harber, bad journalism driven by the profit motive can boost the corrupt and damage the reputation of the news organisation.

What being businesslike means is the focus on the audience and the use of the information about the audience provided by data in the digital environment as urged by Styli Charalambous of Daily Maverick.

The data must in turn, most journalists would agree, be balanced by the public interest nature of journalism and journalists’ practical knowledge of the field, their “gut instinct”.

It is clear that at least some of the problems of “news fatigue” come from a mismatch of what the audience want and the journalists provide. This is a tricky area that the metamorphosis of news organisations changing their model to focus on reader revenue face as they move to the web, especially since most journalism has a mission inform as well as entertain.

A good example from the U.S. is the Christian Science Monitor, the subject of a detailed case study that looks into the challenging changes in perspective that changing business models brings.

Aside from the business side, the evidence is that the problems of journalism in much of the world stem from the way journalism is seen by the public.

The observations of civil society activist Mark Heywood point us to the need to engage as journalists and journalism institutions: As in the US, Covid-19 has merely accelerated a crisis in the media that was already there.

Stemming this crisis will require journalists and organisations like the South African National Editors’ Forum to reach out to communities, and civil society to show the possibilities and the importance of their craft.

But to do this successfully, the media will also need to rethink itself and engage in its own process of introspection. The media is a web. For the colony to survive, it needs internal solidarity between its parts. The overall project cannot progress if all the parts are not functioning, or if certain parts are rotten. One of the lessons we should learn from the US is that it is not sufficient for democracy that parts of the media are strong (the papers that occupy what Nelson calls the “Boston- Washington corridor”) while community newspapers and radio stations are collapsing.

Ultimately therefore, the protection and promotion of the profession of journalism is a political project. Yes, it must be objective and fair, accountable and transparent. It must abide by its ethics. But it is not neutral. If we look back through history, we will find that the media was always connected to advancing democracy. This is what is at stake. It has taken a global pandemic with local repercussions for the question of who pays for journalism and how to be given serious attention.

It would be a pity to waste this opportunity now to solve some of the existential crises that have been decades in the making.

  • This is an excerpt from a  report which was published by the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe Chapter (Misa-Zimbabwe) in partnership with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. It was launched in Harare this week. Next week will publish the recommendations from the report.

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