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Picture: 123RFsebra
Picture: 123RFsebra

The SA media is teetering on a tightrope. Look no further than the latest financial figures of Media24, a division of e-commerce juggernaut Naspers, which are not just indicators of one company’s fortunes but a microcosm of an industry in an existential crisis, revealing the formidable challenges ahead. 

Media24’s ledger for the 2023 fiscal year reads like a cautionary tale: revenue down to $217m, a 16% year-on-year drop, and trading profit at a mere $7m, a 59% free fall from a year earlier.

These figures are not just numbers on a balance sheet; they are distress signals from an industry under siege. 

The company’s ability to keep its head above water and eke out a small profit is laudable. Prudent cost management, highlighted in Naspers’ latest annual report, was its primary saving grace.

That said, one has to wonder: is the media sector’s reliance on austerity a sustainable strategy? 

The shift to digital is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it offers a gateway to audiences unrestrained by print limitations. On the other hand, it scatters the audience and dilutes traditional revenue streams. News24, the digital arm of Media24, which also owns City Press, Rapport and dozens of magazines, recently flaunted reaching 100,000 digital subscribers - an admirable milestone that hints at the promise of the web.

Yet the subscription-generated revenue of between R5 and R90 a month barely covers the bills.

The digital space is a battleground where international tech behemoths commandeer advertising revenue, relegating local media to the fringes. The result is a delicate equilibrium between investing in high-calibre journalism and maintaining financial viability. 

Our fight is not just against economic headwinds but also with echoes of media’s apartheid past. The dawn of democracy brought hopes of a free and diverse press, but old habits die hard.

Funding model

Our editorial “Don’t let our democracy die in darkness” a few weeks ago, alongside the Daily Maverick’s dramatic daylong blackout a week ago, are desperate cries for attention to the plight of journalism in SA.

It is easy to say these are mere publicity stunts akin to media owners holding out a begging bowl to pump money into their failing businesses. But the struggle of the SA media transcends corporate interests; it is about the essence of democracy itself.

A vigorous media is the bedrock of an enlightened electorate, a bulwark against corruption and a platform for a rainbow of voices. 

It’s incumbent on corporate SA, the government and the populace to acknowledge the intrinsic value of journalism and to bolster it. This newspaper has made proposals about how this support could be manifested in a recent editorial ranging from an innovative funding model to a populace willing to invest in content that counts. 

As Media24, whose public disclosures offer a glimpse into industry perils, navigates these turbulent waters, the entire SA media landscape must plot a course for the future. This path demands creativity, co-operation at times, and unwavering commitment to the tenets of journalism. 

The industry must welcome the digital revolution as an ally. It must discover novel revenue models while safeguarding journalistic integrity. And, most importantly, it must remind the public of the indispensable role of the press in upholding our democracy. 

The challenges are formidable, yet the prospects are equally promising. With the right mix of ingenuity, investment and public backing, the SA media can weather this storm and emerge stronger.

Media24’s financial state, Business Day’s editorial and Daily Maverick’s 24-hour shutdown are not just numbers in an annual report, words in a newspaper or a cheap public stunt. They are a clarion call to all stakeholders in the SA media sphere.

There has never been a better time to band together in defence of one of the most vital institutions of our society: a free, independent and vigorous press. The fate of SA democracy may very well hinge on it.

• Motsoeneng is Business Day deputy editor.

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