There’s a meme doing the rounds of a woman in tattered clothing crawling through a desert, as one might when desperately searching for water. The speech bubble coming out of her mouth reads, “Reliable news source … any reliable news source.”
Her plight will have resonance with many South Africans who watched as the country’s once-biggest newspaper group was reduced to a pale shadow of itself, and digital media took hold with its exhausting pursuit of “clicks” and “eyeballs”. The decline of the newspaper company has robbed the country of a reliable recorder of news, and the digital media business model generally places an emphasis on quantity at the cost of quality.
So is our media landscape as parched as the one in which the unfortunate woman finds herself?
Not quite. In spite of a general decline in standards, there are some real beacons. Perhaps the brightest is the battery of investigative journalists in organisations such as amaBhungane, Media24 and Daily Maverick, as well as at the Sunday Times. The Afrikaans newspapers do a good job of covering their communities, and Business Day is also a fine product, although a niche one.
The aforementioned Daily Maverick is a good place to go for insights or opinions – and while tabloids are an overlooked part of the media landscape, some do an excellent job of giving a voice to communities that otherwise would not have one (in between exposés on tokoloshes and racist sharks).
But the yawning chasm in South Africa is the one that was once filled by the Independent Newspapers group: “papers of record” that routinely provide information about your country, province and neighbourhood, and thus equip you to make decisions about your life. These products normally make a vital contribution to democracy, keeping you informed in a balanced way about developments in the local council and what your MP is up to, and keeping an eye on food prices and the like.
The decline of print media – in addition to greedy and short-sighted management – has largely seen this type of journalism disappear. (There are still some exceptions in the “knock and drop” local media, where journalists concentrate on their towns and suburbs.)
The old-fashioned curating and weighting of news – which newspapers once did so effectively – has mostly vanished from the media landscape. So where might a reader go to address this shortcoming? Sadly, there is no simple answer to that question. And so readers in search of real, relevant news might have to spend some time scouring the better online outlets every day… which suggests that there is a gap in the market, if anybody is listening.
CHRIS WHITFIELD is the former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus and Weekend Argus. He and fellow veteran journalist Alide Dasnois recently published the book Paper Tiger, about events at Independent Newspapers in recent years.