Can the media ensure its sustainability while keeping government in check?
A free, independent and unencumbered press is essential to the functioning of a healthy democratic society
Business models for news have rapidly evolved, and media executives constantly ask themselves how best they can adapt their organisations to emerging trends in commercial news consumption to ensure they remain viable and sustainable.
Early adopters to subscription-based content as alternative revenue streams included global iconic brands such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Locally, digital news platforms have also begun to establish paywalls as a means not merely to survive but as a strategy to enhance the final product — more resources behind better journalists covering stories across multiple scales of interest. The cycle, theoretically, should become self-fulfilling, whereby as the quality of journalism syndicated improves commercial success will follow.
The other side of that argument is expressed by Buzzfeed founder and CEO Jonah Peretti, who believes news publishers who move their products behind paywalls and serve only paying audiences do not necessarily serve the interests of democracy. This may be especially true in a country such as ours, replete with its economic and social injustice legacy. Financial woes across the media landscape are not limited to print — digital and broadcast platforms are under just as much threat. Covid-19 has compounded the pressures on advertising revenues across platforms, the consequences of which we are yet to experience fully.
Broadcast executives globally are looking to streamline operations, extract cost and operational efficiencies where possible and explore alternative revenue streams and competitive synergies. Ultimately, like in many other sectors, consolidation remains a trend — the environment is currently favourable for considering such opportunities as businesses scale back their operations due to the poor macroeconomic outlook.
Though the business model of media has changed fundamentally, media executives have a duty to their audiences, employees, shareholders, and advertisers to ensure continuity as best they can, under the most trying of circumstances.
The consumption, distribution and production of news has evolved considerably. Social media and New-Age digital platforms provide a point of access to news — a function previously performed solely by media houses. Taking into consideration that news serves the public interest — a purpose beyond the immediate needs of advertisers and consumers, media have traditionally required a cross-subsidy in the form of advertising or, in some cases, government support.
Against this backdrop it is imperative for the government, through the relevant government departments, to work closely with media houses and/or industry bodies to educate the public and raise awareness through training initiatives in an effort to help the public discern, for instance, between authentic news and fake news.
However, as media managers we need to work more closely with government to find alternatives. Few in public or private sector would dispute the media's critical role in holding our elected officials and private sector counterparts to account. They continue to play a crucial role in exposing corruption and, at the same, ensuring our citizens are kept informed of positive developments — be it launching government programmes or a JSE-listed company’s announcement of its expansion into Africa.
The government needs to commit to supporting media as a vehicle for nation-building and public participation. The sector plays an invaluable role in the broader democratic (and electoral) process. A diverse, inclusive media ensures public access to information, again a cornerstone of democracy and good governance.
Diversity in media will become evident through new voices, new media sources, targeted and representative content in terms of socioeconomic measures, and demographics such as race, gender and geographic spread. These can be incorporated into the media environment, providing wider access and a varied choice of media.
In any event, a free, independent and unencumbered press is essential to the functioning of a healthy democratic society. Staying relevant during uncertain times, both from an industry perspective in terms of the digitalisation of mass media and changing consumption patterns, will remain important as the industry continues to adapt to its changing landscape.
A burning question that remains is, given the commercial constraints and rapid digital transformation of the media sector, how does the sector ensure its relevance and sustainability while holding those in power to account?
• Cajee is chief digital officer at Primedia Broadcasting.
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