Print media grappling with the digital boom

The newspaper industry is grappling to maintain self-sustenance because of the technological boom and digital news forms, the Print and Digital Media Transformation Task Team heard on Thursday.

Representative for Caxton Media, Paul Jenkins, told the hearing in Braamfontein, Johannesburg that apart from exercising the watchdog role, newspapers like any other business needed to generate profit.

“The trouble with the newspapers is that apart from being the fourth estate, they are at the same time a business. There is the persuasive effect that profit does have on your paid-for dailies (newspapers). The owner exercises influence over the newspaper because we are in a capitalist society.

“As the media we are wrestling with a much bigger argument. As we go online, we are saying who pays for our journalists? The internet is free and who pays the newsroom?” Jenkins asked.

He said newspapers needed bigger financial resources to be able to gather news and distribute to far-flung communities. Without the backing of government or corporate entities through advertising, Jenkins said reaching out was complex.

“It (the newspaper) would need a government subsidy or it would need to be carrying government advertising. I am not sure if anything is wrong with that. Alternatively, we would get into (a model) which I call public service publishing akin to public service broadcasting.

“(In that model) everybody must pay a licence fee and it is in the communities’ need that we need those newspapers. The trouble with that is that it will be called propaganda,” said Jenkins.

He said with the technological boom and rapid internet access, the newspaper industry was struggling to survive.

“The problem with the newspaper industry is that we are exchanging our rands for internet cents,” said Jenkins.

From a media freedom perspective, Jenkins said media outlets would prefer self-regulation. He said media houses’ major fear was not about their business viability but the existence of press freedom.

Jenkins was then asked to explain to the task team how a transformation regulation charter would infringe media freedom.

“The issue around press is fragile. When you start with a charter that is imposed by government or imposed through some kind of statutory enactment, it is the thin end of the wedge. Where does it stop?

“How would you categorise whether someone is a journalist or not? Does that mean we are going to have a registry of journalists? We (the media) would rather self-regulate ourselves than have a charter enforced through an Act,” he said.

Earlier, Counsel for Media 24, Ashoek Adhikari, told the hearing that newspaper companies were faced with having to scale down operations and sack employees.

“There has been significant re-alignment going on in the industry already. We also understand that a new business model hasn’t emerged.

“Many new things have been tried, experimenting [in the newspaper industry], but they don’t work,” said Adhikari.

“What is clear is that there is a move to digital, and specifically a move to mobile [phones]. In the process of re-alignment, there is going to be great pain through further staff reductions,” he said.

Print media, globally, was in a state of decline and South Africa was no exception.

The task team’s hearing on Thursday was part of a facts submission phase by key players in South Africa’s newspaper industry: Media 24, Independent Newspapers, Caxton Media, Times Media Group, the Mail&Guardian, and BDFM.

The task team was set up in August to help the industry develop a common transformation strategy. It is examining issues such as ownership, management, employment equity, skills development, and the low level of black ownership in many large media groups.

It was established after Parliament’s portfolio committee on communications criticised the print media sector and called for a transformation charter.

Print Media SA, now called Print and Digital Media SA, rejected the idea and said the media industry would deal with the matter in its own way.

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Print media grappling with the digital boom