Shenanigans of owners nullified journalists’ work

Media is a tough industry. Technology changes on a regular basis and most media houses struggle to keep up, trying to find ways to remain profitable and relevant.
When one is faced with a non-growing (some would say shrinking) economy like ours, it is almost inevitable that one of the areas of expenditure where most companies cut down first is on their media spend.

But this is only part of the story. The history of our media has always been inextricably linked to the history of South Africa.

We have seen how some supposedly-liberal newspapers claimed to have opposed apartheid while, at the same time, employing only white reporters.

On the occasion when these newspapers did employ a token black (African, coloured or Indian), they often did not allow them to use the whites-only staff canteen or the whites-only toilets.

We have seen how some newspapers, at least one of which still exists today, was started as a front by the apartheid government, with taxpayers’ money, in an attempt to promote Nationalist Party views and values to the untapped, in their opinion, white English-speaking market.

We have seen how, in October 1977, the government cracked down mainly on black journalists and media aimed at black people as they tried to stifle the wave of resistance after Soweto 1976.

I thought about the history of our media a lot this week as I reflected on the closing of a relatively small paper called Afro Voice which I had edited for a short while six years ago when it was called The New Age.

The staff of the paper were apparently called in by the owner last Thursday and told that the paper was stopping and that they should go home. They would be paid until the end of July. It was a callous way to bring an end to a newspaper that had been troubled since even before its birth.

One can read something into the name of Afro Voice and its sister television station, Afro World View. It talks about promoting a perspective of Africa, but it is not known whether it refers to the continent or the part of the South African population sometimes referred to as Africans. The distinction is significant, one promoting ethnicity, one promoting continental excellence and unity.

The New Age was a bit more interesting. New Age was the name of a famous - at least in liberation circles - newspaper edited by, among others, Ruth First, the famous Struggle hero who was killed in a letter bomb explosion.

The version of The New Age born in 2010 was supposed to carry on the tradition of the paper of the 1950s, which was vehemently in favour of social change.

But, of course, there were differences. One of the differences is that the original New Age, which was born after the banning of another anti-establishment paper called The Guardian, was not owned by private Indian business people trying to make a quick buck in South Africa.

The owners of the original New Age were in it for social change and fought banning and harassment. The owners of The New Age fought for corporate ad spend but largely depended on government advertising and support.

It was a recipe that would not meet with success in the end, because governments change and you can’t depend on relationships with people in government to keep your business alive.

You have to build a competitive business with, in the case of media, compelling and relevant content that will attract readers who will in turn attract advertisers. People must want to advertise with you, whether they like your paper or not, because they know that you have the numbers.

There were some raised eyebrows in the industry when I and many others joined The New Age more than seven years ago. But we went in genuinely wanting to promote a diversity of voices in the media space, realising that, sometimes editors and other journalists have to produce good media despite our owners and not because of them.

We tried our best and sometimes we succeeded in making the rest of the industry sit up and take notice. Unfortunately, the shenanigans of the owners nullified everything we tried to do as journalists at The New Age.

I worked with some of the best journalists in the industry at The New Age. All of them were just trying to earn a living in a competitive space, and all of them were as committed to the things to which journalists are supposed to be committed, such as wanting to expose corruption among those with power and wanting to provide a voice for those who didn’t normally have a voice in media that mostly promoted the elites in society.

There has been a lot of gloating on social media among people who, rightly or wrongly, did not like The New Age or Afro Voice, but I can never gloat when any media outlet gets shut down in South Africa.

South Africa needs as many diverse voices as possible. Shutting down outlets which promotes views that we don’t like, or owners that we don’t like, will not make those views go away.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 7 July 2018)