Weathering the COVID-19 storm in the media industry

It is time journalists establish a fund to assist each other in times of crises such as these where the coronavirus has hit the media industry, says Willie Mponda, chairperson of the Southern African Editors’ Forum.

“As journalists we should be coming up with solutions to assist publishers, to assist each other,” he said.

Mponda was speaking as a panellist at a webinar organised by South African media organisations held on May 3 to commemorate World Press Freedom Day.

Other panellists included Mail and Guardian editor Khadija Patel, Association of Independent Publishers director Carol Mohlala, and Jocelyne Muhutu-Remy, Facebook’s strategic media partnerships manager for sub-Saharan Africa. South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) chair Mahlatse Mahlase chaired the event.

The webinar discussed the financial distress media publications face in the COVID-19 pandemic and measures they could take to cushion themselves from the hit.

On March 26, the Mail and Guardian made what Patel, described as an “extraordinary” plea. The newspaper asked the public to support the publication by buying the weekly paper or subscribing to it online.

“[It was] opening up to the public and showing our vulnerability,” she said.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded in South Africa, advertisers that contributed about 70% of the publication’s revenue pulled out. Mail and Guardian’s live events which brought in roughly 20% revenue ceased. Patel said they could not have counted on the “impact the pandemic would have on the business.”

“This feels like a final blow,” said Mohlala, highlighting that the sustainability of the press was already an issue before the pandemic.

“As journalists, we’re very good at talking about what is out there,” Mohlala said, adding that journalists fail at letting their audiences know about what is going on in the industry.

Mohlala said community media is worst affected by the pandemic and that it is “heartbreaking” because it means many people will be left out from receiving news.

“Not everyone can write or read in English,” she said.

“In all of the relieve measures the president has made, independent community media has been sidelined and it is clear that [President Cyril Ramaphosa] does not regard the sector as an important contributor to not only the economy, but the communities it serves,” Mohlala said in an open letter sent out to the South African president last month.

If journalists are not able to hold those in power to account or help their audiences understand what is going on, “we are failing in our duties as journalists,” Patel said.

While the Mail and Guardian was able to secure enough funding to pay their staff their full salaries, Patel said her staff has agreed to pay cuts between 10 and 40% from May.

“We’re certainly not out of the woods,” she said.

Mahlase highlighted that social media players such as Facebook have been blamed for “stealing the bread” from publications as advertising revenue has largely shifted to those platforms.

Muhutu-Remy said the social media platform’s role is to help traditional media “adapt” to new technologies.

“We can’t overhaul our business models overnight,” Patel said, adding that the most pressing issues publications need to face is reaching the end of the year with “newsrooms intact”.

“We recognise the importance of news and if news is not sustained, as a global society we will lose out,” Muhutu-Remy said.

The Facebook Journalism Project has availed $390 000 to help South African news organisations with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Applications open on May 5. Find out more here.

Mahlase said the webinar was to kickstart conversation and come up with solutions on how newsrooms can survive the pandemic. She said SANEF will discuss with other journalism organisations to come up with a response that could be suitable for the continent.

The webinar was the first part of a series that ends on May 5. Find out about series here.

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