Wits Journalism has expressed concern over the ongoing weakening of traditional news operations, according to the annual State of the Newsroom Report 2018 which was released last week.
To compensate for this, there has been a launch of independent operations, which the editors of the report said bodes well for the industry.
Wits Journalism researcher, Glenda Daniels, also added a new phrase to the lexicon in describing the the industry as entering what she called a "Post Industrial Journalism".
The report was dedicated to veteran journalist Raymond Louw, who died in June.
"He was an extraordinary figure in South Africa, as editor at Rand Daily Mail, and in leading and being involved in the media. He was always present, always putting in the committee work, the less glamorous work," said Professor Franz Krüger, speaking at the report launch in Johannesburg.
While the report showed that traditional newsrooms are still shrinking, many retrenched journalists have since moved into the gig economy as industry freelancers. The writers warned that these individuals are often mistreated, exploited and underpaid by employers seeking to cut costs as quickly as possible.
The report emphasised a growing need for the South African freelancer's association SAFREA to reinvent itself in order to respond to the new realities and needs of unemployed journalists.
Alan Finlay, the editor of the State of the Newsroom 2018, said that the most pressing issue is the increasing pressure on media freedom and freedom of expression that the industry faces.
According to the report, job losses in South Africa's media sphere continued to mount throughout 2018, with some of the largest and most established media companies shedding journalists and jobs at an alarming rate.
"The research found that there is a divide between younger and older journalists, with the latter trying to hold on to the past and unhappy with new skills demands and in many cases, actively pushing back against attempts to get them to retool. This has led to an acceleration of job loss specifically among more experienced journalists," he said.
The actual number of job losses has been “stunning”, according to presenters at a panel discussion held after the event.
Newspaper Readership in Free Fall
The report also highlighted the fact that "fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers in South Africa".
Audited figures indicate circulation of daily, weekly and weekend newspapers all dropped on average 20% from 2016-2018. Local papers have dipped by an average of 13% in the same period.
But free newspapers appear to be more stable in circulation.
While traditional "industrial news" organisations are finding the going tough, companies that produce online news are following in global growth trends.
"Internet news has remained a vital source of news for millions of South Africans over the past three years" said Finlay.
According to the report: "New24.com was the most visited South African news site in January 2018, recording more than 7-million unique browsers accessing its site in a month. This is over three-million more than timeslive.co.za, which recorded about 4-million unique browser visits, and iol.co.za, which had nearly 3.9-million unique browsers downloading its news.4 As the data shows, Eyewitness News was the most visited site for broadcast media."
But the report isn't all doom and gloom, and there have been positive signs for the industry too. These include improved editorial standards at country's public broadcaster, the SABC. The embattled broadcaster faced years of interference by President Jacob Zuma’s deployed cadres, such as the broadcaster's former COO Hlaudi Motsoeneng and his so-called "enforcers".
Speaking during a panel discussion, South African National Editor's Forum Executive Director Kate Skinner said that another sign of positive change was the growth of advocacy-based journalism. Fact checkers are also now part of the newsroom planning schedule and partnerships have been formed between organisations.
Most of these are externally funded and therefore independent, she said.
Tiso Blackstar's digital editor, Riaan Wolmerans, said the launch of niche online publications, like the recently relaunched Vrye Weekblad in Afrikaans, could indicate the direction of news and media content in the future.
"Subscriptions are streaming in for the Afrikaans online publication," he said.
Vrye Weekblad made its name during apartheid as a tough publication pursuing otherwise untold stories about death squads and abuses committed by the National Party government and other political leadership at the time.
The newspaper's former editor, Max du Preez, is back at its digital helm and Wolmerans was upbeat about its future.
SIpho Hlongwane, the managing editor of the Daily Vox, was also cautiously optimistic about the future of news and news media in South Africa. "There are opportunities which are still there because of the market. The need hasn’t gone away, nor the audience. Find your way of making sense of the market, and I'm going to disagree slightly with the negative view," he said.
"That’s from having a previous relationship with an audience, but if you come with a new perspective and find that people who are creative directors or visual marketers, they are showing that is the future, rather than the news managers and leaders who are rooted in the past."
All panelists agreed that podcasting was a major growth point, although South Africans have not taken to the medium in the same way that other countries have.
"Podcasts offer a niche, which is the way to go," said Hlongwane. "Podcasting is a huge encouragement for independent and small news entrepreneurs. Traditional media, and now more South Africans, are getting access to digital."
Wolmerans said Business Day Live also found its podcast audience growing quickly.
"Isuu advertising is also going to take on Facebook and Google, and other forms of embedded advertising are doing well," he said.
Business Day also produces content for clients, some of which never ends up on the Business Day sites or publications.
"Creating content services for clients is unusual because its something they own, like agency or PR work, " said Wolmarans.
The company was also using video to make money out of a non-traditional content forms. "Video advertising online by companies is in its early days, but this does also support the newsroom," he said.
Journalist - or not?
JAMLAB's managing director, Indra de Lanerolle, said that another change to the conventional model was that many reporters have ditched the term, and the label of journalist. That as independents also launch new ways of transferring their stories, such as WhatsApp and other social media platforms.
"Podcasters are not calling themselves journalists unless they’ve worked in a newsroom, in that niche position," he said.
Hlongwane agreed, saying he had seen this the shift himself.
"During the #FeesMustFall movement, incidentally, the DailyVox was allowed into meetings because it wasn’t the media," he said. "Now when we approach political parties we have a problem because they won’t speak to youngsters. They want more consistency issues," he explained.
Skinner said there was a need to focus on the SABC in order to protect a vital source of news for most South Africans.
"The SABC has 28 million listeners and these people don’t have access to a lot of other media. There are appalling financial issues there at the moment," she warned.
She said that cooperation would be key to ensuring the recovery of the SABC. "One of the most powerful pieces of journalism was the Gupta Leaks and we need to see more of these things. I really believe one thing we need to look at is to ensure a proper functioning digital operation on mobile, concentrating on all 11 languages. We cannot afford to see the SABC collapse," she said.
A copy of the Report can be found HERE