The ANC better move quickly on the press

Jeremy Gordin says our newspapers already being done in by other forces

The media and newspapers in particular are, as we know, currently the whipping boys of the ANC and many of its handlangers. For different reasons, they're also the whipping boys of, for example, David Bullard and Chris Vick.

But it's the ANC who controls what Stalin would have called the big battalions: the power to put damaging legislation through parliament and to have a portfolio committee on communications that's going to "do" your transformation for you. Have a look at Vick's piece of Thursday in Business Day.

Another fine article, by Mandy de Waal, came out on the Daily Maverick website on Monday. (Note that it was published on a website not in a newspaper.)

"'Another project that we must own, and own seriously, is the media,' [President Jacob] Zuma said to a shy round of applause and a couple of laughs," reported De Waal.  

She pointed out that what the president was referring to and what one ought to read (and I even tried, for a while) was an ANC document titled "THE SECOND TRANSITION? Building a national democratic society and the balance of forces in 2012 (as amended by the Special NEC 27 February 2012)". If you're something of a masochist or have time on your hands, you can access it via the Daily Maverick site and no doubt elsewhere on the Net (see here).

De Waal continues: "South Africa's print media is far from transformed or economically free (in ANC terms). An apparent unwillingness to change coupled with the fact that investigative newspapers have stories of ANC largesse continually gracing their front pages, have put print media in the crosshair of the ruling party's firing line.

"The ANC's communications policy discussion document (subtitled ‘Building an inclusive society through information and communication technology') states that the print media plays a huge role in informing the public discourse and that media diversity is critical to nation building.

"The document cites damning statistics from the Media Development and Diversity Agency and Print Media of South Africa, which show average black ownership in local ‘mainstream' print media sits at 14% and female participation in board and management levels is only 4,44%.

"'The print sector is still dominated by four big players, namely Naspers, Avusa, Caxton and the foreign owned Independent Group. These companies also dominate the entire value chain of the market especially printing, distribution and advertising. This integration and the very market structure is perhaps the biggest barrier to market entry and potentially shows possible anti-competitive behaviour,' the document reads."

De Waal goes on to say that the above-mentioned discussion document moots the introduction of an economic empowerment charter to promote "Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment" in the media sector. (This charter, still to come, is what Vick refers to in his piece.)

"It suggests that this empowerment charter addresses the issue of print media not being available in a diversity of languages, and recommends that anti-competitive behaviour in the industry be investigated by the Competition Commission."

In short, as De Waal points out, Zuma et al are pissed off with a print sector that keeps telling the public what's wrong with the ANC. What the political-powers-that-be want to do (as sketched by De Waal - and it's pretty clear that she's on the money) is take over control of the print media.

There are various problems with their planned plans (theoretical and practical), as De Waal goes on to show. But I want to shift my ground now, as Hamlet (I.v) says. "Hic et ubique? Then we'll shift our ground. / Come hither, gentlemen."

Jack Shafer is apparently an American Reuters blogger and he's written a trilogy on the present demise of newspapers. I'm especially interested in a piece he wrote on June 5, titled "The great newspaper liquidation".

He begins thus: "In his 2004 book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age, Philip Meyer imagined ‘the final stages' of a ‘squeeze scenario' by a newspaper owner who wanted to exit the business but didn't want to actually sell the title: He would start charging more for his newspaper and delivering less, commencing the ‘slow liquidation' of his property. This slow liquidation would not be immediately apparent to observers, Meyer wrote, because the asset ‘being converted to cash' would be ‘goodwill' - the newspaper's standing in the community and the habit of advertisers and subscribers of giving it money." [My italics.]

Shafer goes on to argue that "goodwill" is actually where most of a newspaper's value resides. Now, selling goodwill is not such a great idea because it's hard to get it back.

"But a newspaper owner who feels trapped by losses and can't find a new owner at what he considers a fair price may feel he has no alternative but to cheapen his newspaper bit-by-bit, month-by-month. He may explain the goodwill sell-off as temporary economizing to be reversed once business conditions improve... But don't be fooled. If you're winding your company down with no strategy to wind it up, you're burning goodwill even if you don't acknowledge it."

Shafer says that in a way you can't blame the owners (he's talking about the US): profit margins are down, stock prices have gone down, circulation has fallen, the percentage of regular adult readers has diminished, and advertising revenue has dropped.

And then of course there's the problem of the readers who have decided to "shrink" the newspaper - i.e. they stop buying it every day or more than once a week because of websites, iPads, tweeting, international TV news coverage (CNN, BBC, etc) - you know the story. Everywhere (across the states) there are fewer pages per newspaper, less (geographic) areas are being covered, and newsroom staffs are being cut.

Features that people once took for granted have been deleted, magazines and supplements have disappeared - and book review sections ... well, who cares about book review sections any more?  Or what about "classifieds"? Remember when classified ads were big business in The Star? And of course subscription costs aren't going down for the less you get; they're going the other way.

Writes Shafer: "Newspaper owners may be running out of time to beat the liquidation clock if the prediction made in January by the USC Annenberg Center for the Digital Future proves accurate. Because the current generation of print newspaper readers aren't being replaced, most major US print dailies will be dead in five years, the report concluded. Very small newspapers might endure as dailies, as well as the large national newspapers - the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today - and the local Washington Post."

Why am I regurgitating Shafer's fine article when you can read it for yourself? Well, because the flogging off of what Shafer calls goodwill (and what I guess I'd simply call simply "quality") has been going on for a while in this country - for pretty much the same reasons.

The Independent Group, notwithstanding one or two stalwarts or new stars (I'm talking about people), is pretty much all petered out, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti might have said. The newspapers in the colonies (which is what I call the Independent products in Durban and Cape Town) had their hearts ripped out by Anthony O'Reilly's local management years ago.

Caxton has a plethora of community newspapers as well as The Citizen but it seems clear that management's interests and investments (such as they are) go into printing and magazines.

Avusa's Sunday Times is not exactly the mighty thunderer that it was under Joel Mervis and, with the disappearance of JSE company notices, Business Day could be in trouble.

The Daily Sun, without Deon du Plessis at the helm - and, cut it any way you will, Du Plessis was the Daily Sun, there's no getting away from it - well, I'm not holding my breath.

Anyway, enough. My point is that if the ANC want to give the print media a knock-out blow, they'd better move it. I think the new technologies, the rape of "goodwill", and the disinterest and greed of the owners, are going to do the job long before the generally indolent ANC shifts its tuchis.

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