Before the COVID-19 pandemic which pummeled the economies of many nations, there were over 10,000 print journalists in South Africa. After the pandemic, the number has halved to about 5,000 journalists, according to a survey by the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF).
Sbu Ngalwa, editor in chief, Primemedia Broadcasting, who was speaking at the MTN Group headquarters in Johannesburg at the MTN Media Innovation Programme (MIP) in collaboration with School of Media at Pan Atlantic University, said 700 journalists were lost in 11 months into the pandemic.
“The story is the same across Africa. In Nigeria, newsrooms are shrinking very fast and media operators are increasingly finding it difficult to retain talents, pay salary arreas and fund their daily operations.”
Sarah Alozie, a journalist with a mainstream media company in Lagos, Nigeria said she and her colleagues are yet to be paid salaries from May 2023. The pressure for revenue is forcing many journalists and media houses to compromise ethical standards in order to survive. Those who don’t, are putting up paywalls in order to derive some money from the quality content they put out.
Ngalwa who is also the President of SANEF says the decline does not benefit millions of people who do not have access to quality information. This is particularly the case for populations in rural communities across the continent.
He, however, says that the government cannot fund the media. He advocates for corporate organizations in Africa that want to preserve democracy and maintain a stable business environment to take up the challenge of funding media.
“African journalism cannot be built by the government but by companies that care about a sustainable business environment,” Ngalwa said
Nixon Karithi, CEO Tangaza Africa Media, said journalism that changes society and holds African governments to account must be de-commoditized. However, because it needs revenue to thrive, there needs to be ethical boundaries that guarantees its independence is not compromised.
Pontsho Pilane, a former journalist with Mail & Guardian, who spoke during a summit at the University of Johannesburg, says developmental institutions’ funding may be the way for media organisations in Africa.
Apart from inflation and currency evaluation, there is also competition from big tech companies like Facebook and Google eating up the advert revenues of media companies while providing cheaper sources of news and reaching a wider audience.
Not only do tech giants pose a threat to advertising revenue, but they are gatekeepers of online content, exerting power over what internet users access and how advertisers reach them.
Although big tech is helping local news media reach a wider audience, they make a lot of money from the works of local journalists through advertisements and sponsored content. They also dictate what users see and how creators of the content are compensated.
Ngalwa says countering this threat like countries like Australia has done, requires a united voice from media companies on the continent. Also, a united front can ensure that big tech companies pay news media houses in Africa what they actually deserve and serve as a sustainable source of funding for the industry.
This was the primary focus of the Big Tech and Journalism conference that was held in July at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg. The conference brought together over 70 journalists, news publishers, media organizations, scholars, activists, lawyers, and economists from 24 countries to discuss solutions to the crisis sustainability of journalism and its intersection with the role of major tech platforms.
During the conference, the delegates agreed to adopt the “Big Tech and journalism: Principles for Fair Compensation”. The objectives of the principles are universal, and serves as a framework for any country seeking to address media sustainability through competition or regulatory approaches, while enabling adaptation to the unique context. It is hoped that the Principles will represent an important step forward in addressing news media sustainability in the tumultuous era of Big Tech.
But implementing the principles would require a continental action. Ngalwa says this is where reviving The Africa Editors Forum (TAEF) is critical. The forum has been inactive due to lack of consensus by the various editors forums across the continent to work together.