Picture: 123RF/rawpixel
Picture: 123RF/rawpixel

Our media sector, like so many, is for the most part in crisis. 

We are lucky to have a few big media groups that have significant resources behind them.  For many small commercial publishers and community radio stations, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown with its dire economic consequences have simply been too much.

The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) put out a report that showed just how bad things are.  We also know that media is an essential element for democracy. You can have media without democracy, but you cannot have a democracy without quality journalism. Its role isn’t simply to hold the powerful to account, it is also to help explain our complex existence and offer credible information in a sea of disinformation.

In other words, the media is essential to democracy, but business models for sustainability are few and far between.  There are some media companies that have succeeded, and we are seeing an increasing number of hybrid models: donor funded, membership, paywalls and niche areas of reporting.  Ultimately, though, the outlook is pretty bleak for media owners.

In the Covid-19 crisis, Sanef started an emergency fund – it is an excellent start but clearly a stopgap with little likelihood of pulling the media sector in general out of the doldrums, especially in an economic recession.  With the shift to digital, we can expect the SA media to mirror global experience, where more than 80% of advertising is bypassing traditional media, helping the likes of Google and Facebook get richer. 

We need to use the increased awareness of the importance of journalism and think of new ways of making media more sustainable. 

We know that, for many large corporations, advertising in news media is seen to be off-brand, unappealing and negative because few want to have their brand next to stories of gross corruption, murder, rape, poverty and natural disasters. While possibly understandable, it doesn’t help the argument that media is an essential public good or make it sustainable.   

Emerging risks for corporates in the digital era are disinformation and rampant corruption.  Traditionally, credible journalism exposed these practices.

The problem with rampant corruption is that it increases costs across a range of businesses, kills competition and exposes good corporate citizens to huge pressures from those in power.  Without the media to expose such pressure, the corporates are on their own.

You can have media without democracy, but you cannot have a democracy without quality journalism

The rise of disinformation poses a threat to democracy, but it can just as easily pose a profound threat to corporate entities. While corporates experiencing challenging media reports invariably turn to their own PR in a crisis, they also rely on credible media to get their views out.  Without credible media the chances of any corporate being able to publish a version of events that should be heard will be drastically reduced.  Disinformation thus poses a real risk to corporates, and credible media is the strongest means to mitigate the risk.

The problem with corruption is that only a few benefit. But as we are seeing now, the money eventually runs out, and while some big corporates may survive, many others will fail and the cost of doing business will increase. In the long run, more will lose out on potential profits from a growing economy vs a collapsed one. The media is thus not only essential for holding power to account and disseminating information, but it also serves as a bulwark against the destruction of other critical pillars of democracy.  It is thus in corporates’ interest to have a credible, diverse and pluralist media sector. 

So, what other income streams can we create? Should corporates support the media, and if so, how?

With climate change and other pandemics predicted, the news agenda is unlikely to look any less negative in the near future, but what we have seen is the importance of news and credible information for the public. Conspiracy-filled, anxiety-driven, angry citizens are always going to be less productive than an informed public, particularly in the workplace. 

My simple yet effective solution is to make it fashionable for corporates to actively and constructively build an active citizenry. Corporates should give subscriptions to various media for all their employees. Simple.  The corporates will benefit by having more engaged employees, and the pot could be sweetened because supporting media is a public good, and the government could be convinced to offer them tax incentives. The more subscriptions, the greater the tax write-off. Imagine the quality of journalism South Africans would receive then.

The big take-out:

Corporate subscriptions used as tax write-offs is a simple yet effective way to help the media survive

It isn’t only up to SA corporates. We need to look at the global nature of the challenge, and consider efforts similar to those being examined in Australiawhere they are looking to ensure that the major platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter return some of the revenue from advertising into news media.

Clearly, we need to work on some calculations, but if our democracy is to stand a chance of surviving, our media sector is essential.  Just as so many corporates have stood up and donated to the Solidarity Fund and food drives, we need the responsible corporates that want to exist in five years to see that running their business isn’t enough. They need to help build our democracy. Subscriptions to media help empower and inform their employees, and a vibrant and well-funded media sector will help combat disinformation, create jobs and ensure a more stable society.  Let’s see who’s bold enough to take the first step. 

  • William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa.


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