I had cause this week to look back at an old South African newspaper from the 1970s, when newspapers were at their financial peak. I was struck by the wide range of news that was covered routinely by a standard newsroom.
Certainly, our newspapers of that period had their prejudices and blind spots. I don’t want to idealise them, as they reflected the racial politics of the time. But they had reporters in all levels of the courts, the city council, provincial legislatures as well as the national. They had dedicated reporters for crime, education, labour, health and other key areas. They had correspondents all over the place, and in at least three cities in the northern hemisphere. They gave a lot more space than newspapers do now to international, entertainment, sport and business news. They had a page of readers’ letters.
And for what they couldn’t cover, they had SAPA, the SA Press Association, a news-sharing cooperative that gave them coverage of events outside of their areas.
I raise this not to be nostalgic, but to remind ourselves of how much we miss when we don’t have healthy outlets with large, thriving newsrooms packed with reporters and editors. When you read it, you knew you were getting a plurality of news from all the major social institutions, selected and processed for a mix of information and enjoyment. It had an agenda, no doubt, but it was not just an arbitrary assortment of what one happened to pick up – unprocessed and unverified – from social media.
It is not so much the product we miss, as the existence of large, structured newsrooms designed to select, process and verify news. Today’s newsrooms are tiny in comparison, and the news cycle has got much shorter so that they are forced to process information at a furious pace. The result is apparent in the lack of editing in much of the news copy we read.
The latest newspaper sales figures were released this week by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. They showed us that all of our newspapers, which have long been in steady decline, are on their last legs.
Total national daily newspaper sales are less than our biggest newspaper alone sold a few years ago. The Sunday Times, the country’s biggest newspaper, sold an average of 82 000 copies (from a peak of 600 0000) in the last quarter. City Press was just 17 700 and Rapport was 65 000. The biggest daily, Daily Sun, sold just 32 500 (from a peak of 500 000). Most alarming was the Independent Group: Pretoria News sold a mere 1 200 copies, The Star only 14 300 and the Cape Times just 7 400. This paper, Business Day, sold 11 700, the Mail & Guardian 8 600. The only new newspaper, Daily Maverick’s 168 sold 6 800. The isiZulu daily Isolezwe has dipped less at 29 100, as did the Afrikaans papers, with Beeld at 20 300 and Die Burger at 27 000. I am excluding copies some of these papers gave away for free, the piles you see at airports.
After a long illness, the patient is in the hospice, preparing to bid farewell and hand over to a new generation. These papers only exist because there is still some advertising that will only work in print, and to help bring people to online subscriptions – where the future clearly lies.
Of course, the digital world offers much that print didn’t. People can take and share videos that reveal things previously hidden. There can be much more consumer engagement. Journalists’ research and fact-checking are made much easier. Constraints of time and geography are gone. And so on.
But what we have lost for now is the curation of a news package that keeps one broadly informed: the sense that teams of editors and sub-editors have put time into selecting and verifying, with a purpose. And the importance of covering our key social, economic and political institutions day in and out, catching, for example, that controversial resolution that a small town council tries to slip through late at night. That seldom happens anymore and it is hard to notice the absence of news. We see it when it is too late, when the small towns are no longer delivering water or fixing the roads.
We have gained much from the rise of digital, but we have also lost a lot. And it is unclear whether we will ever build up those kinds of news operations again.
That’s the focus now: to build an online news model that is financially strong enough to restore news coverage to the way it needs to be in a functioning democracy. It is going to need investment and innovation – and a realization that it is important to our country and our society to ensure this happens.
*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits and executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression