The passing of the press

Andrew Donaldson writes on Naspers' decision to close down most of the Afrikaans newspapers


BACK in January 2007, the American author and humorist Garrison Keillor published a short essay on the art of reading a newspaper. He wrote that he had been observing “the young” in coffee shops and had noticed that something was missing from their lives: 

“They sit staring at computer screens, sometimes with wires coming out of their ears, life passing them by as they drift through MySpace, that encyclopaedia of the pathetic, and check out a video of a dog dancing the Macarena. It is so lumpen, so sad that nobody has shown them that opening up a newspaper is the key to looking classy and smart…”

A lot has happened since then. The smartphone has usurped the laptop. Bluetooth technology has done away with wires. MySpace was rendered obsolete by Twitter, now X. And it’s no longer a dog dancing the Macarena that commands attention but rather the ravings of toxic trolls like Dudu Sambudla-Zuma.  ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

As for newspapers, well … (*deep sigh*) … the situation is dire.

Reports that Media24 was considering the closure of the print editions of BeeldRapportCity Press and Daily Sun to move entirely online, perhaps as early as October, will have come as a shock to loyal readers. 

The news though is hardly surprising. Publishers have for years battled with financial losses, driven primarily by escalating distribution costs, diminishing advertising revenue and, importantly, a readership migration to online platforms.

This migration from fish-wrap format to the digital ether has been cataclysmic, as Media24 figures indicate: Rapport’s circulation has fallen from around 335 000 in 2000 to a current figure of around 60 000 copies, City Press has nose-dived from some 233 000 copies to just 14 000 in the same period, while Beeld has dropped from 100 000 to around 20 000.

These figures are representative of a global decline in print titles as the consumption of news on digital platforms is now deeply entrenched. Titles in other media groups, including the Arena-owned Sunday Times and Business Day, are experiencing a similar financial strain. One can imagine, schadenfreude excepted, the sort of pain that Iqbal Surve’s Independent tiles must be experiencing. I must admit a measure of sadness and regret at all this, even where Swervy’s alleged press barony is concerned. I once proudly reported for the Cape Times, one of the titles he has since destroyed. 

Most of my working life has been mired in ink, a career that, my old passports will show, has taken me around the world: Hong Kong, London, New York, Cairo, Paris, Sydney, Monaco, Las Vegas … it’s all been a bit like those old Peter Stuyvesant commercials. Sometimes, though, it was the less salubrious destinations that made the job interesting. 

I remember, as a cub reporter, having to trawl the murky corridors of the Port Elizabeth Magistrate’s Court, one of the saddest places on the planet, in search of cases worthy of coverage by the august Evening Post. It was there that I found my first front page story. Not the lead item, mind, but rather a small item, a nib, that was placed below the fold: a local man had charged his domestic worker with theft after she had confessed to helping herself to the contents of his drinks cabinet.

This was, on the face of it, hardly worth the court’s trouble. Who on earth would report such a trifling matter to the police? Why would it go on to be prosecuted? It seemed extraordinarily petty and cruel. But that’s what made it interesting — and, tragically, so quintessentially South African. 

Passing sentence, the magistrate gave my report its standout quote: “Not only do you steal the baas’s brandy, but you top up the bottles with water!”

A rebuke delivered, perhaps for the benefit of the sole reporter present, in the sternest of tones.

The thing is, I was paid to do this sort of work. The point, I guess, is that journalism is expensive; it costs money. And it’s not just the glamorous stuff either. Publishers need to pay trained reporters to hang around dreary council chambers and shabby courtrooms in search of stories. Often they trudge back to their news editors at the end of the day empty-handed. But that was the nature of the game back then. 

The internet has changed all that. With, of course, the help of newspaper proprietors who foolishly decided to embrace this brave new world of “free information” and place their product online without charging consumers. They paid for its production and then gave it away, gratis, without a second thought. It was commercial suicide.  

They’ve changed their minds now. But it may be too late for the sort of journalism that we grew up with. David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and creator of the hit TV series, The Wire, has long since warned of newspapers’ demise at the hands of owners who showed “contempt for their product”.

In a March 2009 interview with the Guardian, Simon suggested that, if they wanted to survive, newspapers should not only “collaboratively” impose charges for reading online, but also demand fees from aggregators such as Google News, which profit from their journalism. “If you don’t have a product that you're charging for,” he told the newspaper, “you don't have a product. If you think that free is going to produce something that’s as much of a cost centre as good journalism — because it costs money to do good journalism — you’re out of your mind.”

Two months later Simon addressed a US Senate committee hearing on the future of newspapers. Doing so, he stressed that he was not making “a Luddite argument against the internet and all that it offers”, but rather decrying the emergence of “so-called citizen journalists” and bloggers:

“Why? Because high-end journalism — that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending…

“I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training, or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.”

The former newspaper editor Anton Harber echoed these sentiments in his comments on the possible closure of Media24’s print editions. He expressed a longing for the age when “the better print products served up edited and curated news with a thoughtfulness, design and care” that is seldom found online nowadays. 

On the internet, Harber wrote in Daily Maverick, it usually felt as if one had to wade through “a mass frantically compiled information of variable quality and depth” before finding anything worth consuming. 

“Most newspapers,” he said, “have an identity and a social role that seldom survives in the online version. Print papers were a part of our city, community and family lives and identities, very different to when everyone is staring down at different news sources on their phones. At their best, print newspapers led and shaped the news and set the political and social agenda — admittedly not always well — but these days you often don’t know if the news you are getting is genuine or something dreamed up by an anonymous psychotic in a windowless basement.”

The anonymous psychotics are perhaps not so anonymous these days. They’re all over social media. This is, we are told, the era of Tik Tok elections, of political campaigns on Twitter. As a result, the disinformation and lies are rife, particularly where Jacob Zuma and his uMkhonto we Sizwe party are concerned. He and his supporters persist in claiming, without a shred of evidence, that the election was rigged and that MK were the outright winners. 

These people wish us harm, they want chaos and mayhem to upend the tenuous and cautious optimism presented by a possible government of national unity. Such a goal will be so much easier to attain in a society stripped of newspapers and in a country in need of vigorous journalism.