COVID-19 drives new search for media sustainability

COVID-19 has exacerbated issues such as shrinking advertising revenue within South Africa’s news industry, forcing the industry to search for new financial sustainability models in the pandemic.

While there has been a spiralling decline in advertising spend, the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) COVID-19 Impact On Journalism Report noted that there has been an uptick in online news traffic.

“The digital side has really been an extraordinary moment not only for South African media but globally,” said Adriaan Basson, News24 editor-in-chief, at a SANEF-organised webinar launching the COVID-19 Impact On Journalism Report.

Basson led the online discussion moderated by SANEF chairperson Mahlatse Mahlase with South African Broadcasting Corporation editor-in-chief Phatiswa Magopeni, Association of Independent Publishers (AIP) executive director Carol Mohlala and researcher Reg Rumney who worked on the report.

According to the report released on June 1: “Neither the regional and national newspapers of the Big 4 South African publishers nor broadcasting was immune to the plunge in advertising, which varies from an estimated 40% to 100%. Added to this was the disappearance of third-stream revenue from such sources as the hosting of events.”

In the report, Rumney noted that in March, there was a 72% surge in news website traffic. The report highlighted that news sites such as News24, Business Insider, The Citizen, Fin24, SABC and EWN saw a growth of over 50% in traffic.

However, while this is indicative that people want credible news sources during the COVID-19 pandemic, Basson said this posed a challenge for digital newsmakers to make their businesses profitable and support sustainable journalism in the future.

“The audience is moving online [...] but the challenge remains the business model. You go online and your advertising revenue decreases, so what do you do?” Rumney said.

Basson said that as a result, South African online publications have looked into alternative funding models. He noted that Netwerk24 has a subscription model and Daily Maverick with a model similar to that of The Guardian’s which is based on donations.

“The task we have is looking to the future is finding ways to fund the news media sustainably,” Rumney said.

While the digital space provides the media with a loophole opportunity out of heavily depending on declining advertising revenue, it is not an option which all South African media can explore.

“Online, there are so many challenges for our local guys in terms of trying to keep up with what is happening online and the cost of trying to maintain content. [It] is something that is quite new to us as we are big on print,” Mohlala said.

AIP represents small community publications, and in SANEF’s report on COVID-19’s impact on South African news, Mohlala pointed out that AIP publications have lost about 80% of revenue with 80 publications closing down as a result of declined advertising revenue.

While the COVID-19 pandemic provides a grim future for South African media, Magopeni said the public should still have the right to resonate with different newsmakers. She added that a “shrinking” media ecosystem would result in audiences having few voices to listen to.

“We cannot find ourselves with very few voices remaining in the industry because of the impact of COVID-19, the plurality of voices is very important for our sector,” she said.

Find SANEF’s research report here.

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