19 April 2020
“Democracy Dies in Darkness,” reads the official slogan of American newspaper The Washington Post, owned by the richest man on planet earth, Jeff Bezos.
Print media for decades has been the conscience of society. As a young fellow growing up in the rural parts of the Free State, names like Can Themba, Henry Nxumalo and Aggrey Klaaste were revered – almost canonised.
The great tradition of good journalism they left behind lives to this day in many journalists across the country.
We have seen and read great coverage of Covid-19 – the global pandemic and its impact on livelihoods – as well as sheer devastation of communities is perhaps the single-biggest story of our lifetime.
It is therefore ironic that it presents a danger to the livelihoods of newsmen.
Journalists are faced with a harsh reality; advertisers are staying away as Covid-19 eats into newspapers sales.
The future of newspapers is drifting into a darker place. Advertising revenue has been plummeting for years, with advertisers moving their spending to Facebook and other social media platforms. It is worthy to note that Facebook is the same platform the CIA found to have been used by Russia to influence the 2016 US election that gave the world the misfortune of the Trump presidency.
Social media has a big role to play in modern society, but it will never replace the watchdog role of journalists. Numbers don’t lie, and that is why advertisers prefer these platforms. But people in powerful positions lie – and when they do they are often exposed by the media. This is why the lack of financial support from corporate South Africa to the media is bewildering.
Journalists at Independent Media, the biggest English newspaper group on the continent, are facing massive salary cuts, so are colleagues at the Citizen.
The Mail & Guardian has also pleaded for support to sustain its business during this unprecedented time when the work of journalists is appreciated but their livelihoods are ignored.
The future of news organisations is precarious – so is democracy itself.
The drying up revenues for media houses, the flight of experienced journalists to corporate South Africa and the public service present an immediate risk to democracy. The risk is that those government departments and companies that spend heavily on advertising in the media might become untouchable.
It is a dangerous place for a democracy to leave the media going cap in hand to the government and advertisers for survival. Editorial independence might be the sacrificial lamb in the pursuit of keeping the stomach full.
Corporate South Africa should use a portion of its social investment budgets to support the media because it’s in its interest that the rule of law is upheld and transgressions of the constitution exposed by a robust and independent media. Democracy can only die in the dark when the light of good, credible and independent journalism is switched off.