IN THE NEWS: MONEY DECIDES, ALL THE FACTS

I recently came across an interview with city press editor Ferial Haffejee on Ruda Landman’s show Love Change (March,5,2015)  in which she spoke about the future of journalism. It was quite a revealing interview  and there were a few elements of that interview that struck a chord with me. But two topics stood out.

  1. The future funding models for not just any but “good/worthy” journalism addressing fundamental social issues such as education, health, transport, employment, public policy issues etc.   2.  The women’s voice in the newsroom. In the interview she said she teaches women journalists that “it’s okay to speak up, nothing will happen to you”.

These two subjects struck a chord with me because I am, a woman, a journalist thinking about the future of my chosen career and trying in some small way to create a space for not just my voice in the media sphere but more importantly the voices of a cohort we’ve all come to call “ordinary people” or the ‘masses”.

This week I will focus on the financial aspects – funding for journalism and next week I will focus on women voices in newsrooms.  I think these are subjects we need to think about more often. All things being equal:

MONEY DECIDES

Regarding the funding model for good journalism Hafajee said she believed strongly that the future of journalism lies in the non-profit sector.  She said jokingly that if we don’t want to only read about the Khanyi Mbaus’ and the Kim Kardashians of the world we will have to rely on the altruism of wealthy people to fund those worthy projects or “good” journalism. She admitted that it was indeed a very tricky balance to maintain, but insisted that it was one worth exploring seriously.

The interview touched very briefly on this subject, but it got me thinking deeply about what other forms of funding for journalism are available to us. Of course I thought a lot about my own experience in the industry which has been rather tumultuous in recent years. This piece is not meant to be a critique of her views in particular but a reflection on what is possible based on some real-life examples.

Dans le Epoch

I was a proponent of this idea (non-profit-journalism) until I was on the receiving end of such grants and realized that – financially speaking – they are structured to support established news organizations (the mainstream media) or journalists who write or report for large media conglomerates.  This support or funding is granted under conditions that serve the special interests of those philanthropists (funders) some of which are not explicitly expressed in contracts but tacitly accepted to be understood. They are not meant to support good, independent journalism necessarily.

I also had the opportunity to observe a variation of this not for profit funding model in detail as an editor at a developmental news agency in which NGO’s dictated where, when and how a story is to be covered. While this seemed to work because they did not directly interfere with editorial content and we did focus on the “worthy” stories, the downside is that this skewed our focus only to those stories which were already funded.

This created a climate of the news agency becoming more of an extended public relations (PR) news agency for the NGOs instead of an actual independent news organization which was not only setting the agenda of what is important but reporting on issues which are important to the people. Instead we were reporting on the interests of NGO’s who felt that their work was under covered or under-reported in the mainstream media.  I worked for this development news agency because, I thought I could do more there than at the public broadcaster but the opposite was true.

While working in Senegal I also had another opportunity to experience how a non-profit funding model could work, this time at a radio-station which was wholly funded by the George Soros foundation (OSI /OSIWA). Which offers the best example. There I found that while the staff experienced freedom from overt “censorship”, the had freedom editorially they paid for that freedom in salaries and working conditions.   The conditions were so appalling that some staff passed out from exhaustion while on duty, others were so ill that they would throw up in secret between bulletins but continued to work anyway because there were too scared to lose their jobs. The working conditions there were no different to those of sweat shop employees. This may seem like an exaggeration but there is an example closer to home.

The working conditions and pay were similarly harsh at the newly established TV News channel ANN7 where I worked for a short-spell.  Though there, some individuals (Brands Names) were paid well above market trends, most of the work-force was not duly compensated and the working conditions were worse than those at the radio station in Senegal, because of a climate of utter tyranny imposed by those in charge. All of these are different forms of non-profit funding models for journalism. Some work better than others.

To be sure and clear. Nothing is perfect in life and neither are newsrooms – editors and  journalists, and sometimes being under resourced can produce some brilliant journalism. But if the future of journalism lies in the hands of wealthy families such as the Guptas who own the New Age Newspaper and the African News Network (Infinity media) both of which have been operating like non-profits, then we are in trouble indeed.

I don’t think that those who give money to journalists should be the ones to decide how it is used. I think news organization or journalists should be the ones who motivate for certain stories to be covered or funded. Non-profit should mean just that, money with no hidden agenda.  Of course the problem here is obvious, If I am to give away my hard earned money or however I got the money, I would  like it to go to a cause that I believe in, my special interest. If you’re going to take the money then you must do as I wish, at the very least right? So regardless of these good intentions wealthy people do not just give money, one always has to wait for the other shoe to  drop,  it’s just a matter of where and when. Why would this then be the sustainable way to fund good journalism?

I guess the question is: Good Journalism for Who? Who cares?

The National Public Radio  in the US is a great example of what we could do because it’s just a great product and offers good meaty stories, but unfortunately it’s not the most listened to station in the US. Yes with a listener ship of about 34 million listeners a day – a third of South Africa’s population –  that may sound huge at first but considering that the US has a population of over 500 million people you can see how that is just a drop in the ocean. NPR’s structure is a little complex, but simply put its structured on a syndication model and it receives its funding from the state (federal government) donations and licencing fees from member stations.  This has meant that what we consider real news has become a niche special interest in the US and not a matter of public interest. Issues of public interest unless brutally violent don’t make it to the mainstream news. Paid for commercial news outlets dominate but they too are very thin on actual news and they focus on the latest Kim Kardashian exploits.

So while this may seem like the best option, I  don’t think it’ll be a good fit for South Africa. I think that whatever difficulties we may currently face with the public broadcaster: that is where the future of good real journalism is and should be. We cannot leave it up to the state to run and we cannot leave it up to big business or wealthy people with special interests to decide what will constitute news which is in the public interest.  The evolution of the “media” as a fourth estate is not only to tell people what government is doing, but to hold that same government to account to the public, the people who elected them into office in the first place.

Yes I’m an idealist : The truth is the SABC belongs to the People not the STATE!

We can’t have ministers dictating what should or should not be covered by the public broadcaster.  That is not their job.  Because it is ours (the nation of South Africa) our tax money built it, and sustains it. We should decide, when, where and how and therefore we cannot abandon it and start something new which will have the exact same structural problems built into it. I don’t believe, although it may not seem like it, that the SABC is beyond repair.

ALL THE FACTS

In journalism we cannot let money decide what is news. We should decide what’s important and then put money there. If we let money decide we will have a Mail&Guardian situation where we throw away the baby with the bath water. Financial constraints at the MG ( and many other newspapers in South Africa in fact) have led to a  deterioration in the quality of news, a significant drop in circulation figures, the mass exodus of talented and experienced journalists into the abyss or niche  news markets in small internet news outfits such as the Daily Maverick, The Conmag, The Conversation, Africa Is a Country, Code for Africa and Africa Check most of whom don’t pay their writer’s for their stories (it’s for the love of it ) or if they  do pay, it’s very specific, special interest i.e.  “data-driven” stories which is the new buzzword in the news. Most of their writers are not even journalists at all – which seems to be a global trend led by global newspapers such as the Economist. Most of them attract writers who are already employed on a full time basis in other professions so they can afford to write, opinion pieces for free, a trend some people call vanity journalism. The result of this is that a large number of South Africans are left out of important debates about the future of the country. And only the elite – or those with the money have a voice to influence what we see and know to be true.

Hafejee rightly said that this a scary time to be a journalist in this digital world of twitter, facebook, Instagram, youtube, instant celebrities with even shorter attention spans. So where does that leave us? How can we fund good journalism? With minimal commercial or  political interference? Is it still worth it?

I personally don’t have  answers to these questions.  I think  though that we can at the very least  vote with our money where newspapers are concerned. So much more of course is at stake with the  public broadcaster and I think , that’s one place we should never neglect.

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