The Print Media Transformation Dilemma

By Jane Duncan · 4 Mar 2011

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Picture: Daniel R. Blume
Picture: Daniel R. Blume

The Press Council of South Africa has just completed a series of public hearings into the adequacy of its systems. The hearings were organised in response to the African National Congress’s (ANC) arguments that the Council is biased towards the media, necessitating the establishment of a statutory Media Appeals Tribunal (MAT).

The ANC also continues to berate the print media for a lack of transformation, and has argued for a Parliamentary hearing on the matter. Much of their ire has been directed at the four big groups that dominate the newspaper industry, namely Avusa, Independent Newspapers, Media24 (owned by Naspers) and Caxton/ CTP.

The ANC has equated democratisation with the introduction of more competition in the media, coupled with the entry of black empowerment capital. This understanding has led them to call for increased black ownership of the print media, and for the Competition Commission to investigate possible anti-competitive behaviour by these groups.

In January, the ANC's spokesperson Jackson Mthembu stated that the hearing, and the possible establishment of the Tribunal, will be put on hold “to give the media an opportunity to transform themselves,” presumably referring to the Council’s review. However, in the light of the poor turnout at the public hearings, it is likely that the ANC will press ahead with the Parliamentary process.

Mthembu does not seem to realise that freedom cannot be granted or withheld at the whim of political parties. Nevertheless, the following question remains: to what extent has the print media transformed? While the media freedom question has been debated extensively, there has been surprising little debate on the transformation question.

Answering the question depends on how one defines transformation. Research undertaken for the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) focussed on the lack of black ownership in the industry, and on this level the print media are not doing well at all. However, the industry body, Print Media South Africa (PMSA), has argued for the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) scorecard to be used as a measure of transformation, as it measures other elements of transformation.

The PMSA's argument implies that if the scorecard is used, then the industry has actually transformed much more than the MDDA research suggested.

In fact, the industry’s performance in terms of the scorecard is very good in some respects and very patchy in others. Presumably, the PMSA is attempting to defuse the ANC and MDDA's arguments by banking on the strong scores to balance out the weak scores.

All four groups have scored top marks for the indirect indicators of transformation, namely enterprise development and socio-economic development. Scores for preferential procurement are strong. These are unsurprising findings as companies often find these targets easier to meet than the direct empowerment targets.

The scores for skills development, however, are poor, with Media 24’s score being particularly dismal. The low scores imply that managers have slashed training budgets in response to the recession: an unstrategic move as it strengthens the ANC’s arguments that commercial imperatives are driving down journalism standards.

Performance on employment equity is patchy, with Media 24 and Caxton turning in the worst performance. Three of the four major newspaper groups have scored impressively high marks for management and control, with Independent Newspapers lagging behind somewhat.

The area where the industry is really vulnerable to attack for lack of transformation is ownership: the only group that has significant direct black ownership is Avusa. Caxton/ CTP and Independent Newspapers have a disgraceful 0 per cent black ownership.

However, given the fact that these groups are management controlled, it could be argued that the industry is, in effect, black-controlled. But this argument, in turn, fails to distinguish between operational and allocative control. While black people clearly enjoy operational control of newspapers, they lack significant allocative control, which means that they do not have the power to hire and fire directors if they fail to act in the shareholders' best interests.

But should print media transformation be reduced to the elements of the B-BBEE scorecard? The short answer is no. Scorecards are generic measurement tools; as a result, they cannot measure transformation in the most crucial area of the print media’s operations, namely content.

More fundamentally, the scorecard system equates transformation with de-racialisation. When applied to the media, it can lead to the flawed assumption that when black people replace white people, sustainable transformative changes to media practices will automatically follow.

In 2001, media academics Mashilo Boloka and Ron Krabill offered a much richer definition of transformation, arguing that successful transformation would be achieved when the media ‘reflects, in its ownership, staffing and product, the society within which it operates.... [This] is only possible if access is opened – again in ownership, staffing, and product – not only to the emerging black elite, but also to grassroots communities of all colours’.

This definition moves the transformation debate beyond the dominant conception of transformation as de-racialisation, to focus on the class dimensions of transformation as well. The definition also stresses the need for a diversity of voices.

Undoubtedly, racial transformation in the industry has encouraged content transformation, and newspapers are far more in touch with the realities on the ground than they were. But there are also worrying signs of a reduction in viewpoint diversity.

Newspapers have adopted several strategies to weather the recession. They have enhanced their investigative capacity to maintain reader interest, and newspapers are now on the cutting edge of investigative journalism.

But the general newsroom is being cut to the bone. According to Media Tenor, reliance on news agency copy is growing. Several newspaper groups have also centralised a range of functions (including news generation). Media 24 has migrated City Press towards upper income audiences. In some cases, circulation to outlying areas has been cut back. Women lack a significant voice in the media and linguistic diversity is still sadly lacking. The trend is clear: when the chips are down, ‘uneconomic’ constituencies are expendable.

Furthermore, while the newspaper industry is not nearly as concentrated as a market like Australia, the industry is veering towards dangerously high levels of concentration, with Media 24 dominating the landscape. Over the past ten years, ownership diversity has decreased. However, South Africa lacks an objective print media concentration test, which is dangerous as it creates space for arbitrary political interventions in media ownership.

There are structural features in the print media sector that disadvantage small media. The big groups enjoy competitive advantages over smaller, independent media, and the larger the big groups, the more difficult it is for the smaller groups to survive. There is evidence that small commercial and community newspapers, which should give a voice to the poorest and most marginalised sections of society, are in deep trouble.

According to the Association of Independent Newspapers (AIP), an audit of its membership revealed a 51 per cent decline in membership between 2008 and 2010. One AIP member described his fight for survival against the big groups as a ‘David and Goliath battle’, and observed that the battle is getting harder every year.

Another AIP member, who attempted to challenge what he felt to be anti-competitive practices by Caxton, had to withdraw a case from the Competition Commission, as the company could not afford the legal fees. Their experience suggests that the Commission is not user friendly for small media.

The four big groups are facing a dilemma. Suspicions abound in the industry that the ANC is raising the transformation argument opportunistically to force the newspaper industry to enter into equity deals to neutralise their watchdog role. But at the same time, things cannot stay the way they are.

The best antidote to political control of the industry is media diversity. In this regard, some countries have recognised that competition law cannot be relied on to achieve diversity. Given that they rely mainly on economic criteria, rather than social criteria, to measure dominance, competition authorities lack the conceptual tools to even understand, much less intervene, in the problem.

Given the inadequacy of general competition rules, several countries are developing media-specific diversity of voices tests, or diversity points systems. France has legislated ownership limitations for the print media. Foreign ownership caps are also being debated. Since the establishment of the MDDA though, South Africa has fallen behind the international curve in crafting similar diversification tools, and the ANC’s media policy is silent on them too.

The MDDA’s establishment was a welcome advance towards media diversity. But its general underfunding and the lack of an enabling environment for diversity means that the agency can do little more than tinker on the margins of the problem.

A transformation charter could play an important role as an aspirational document, but only if it moves beyond the flawed confines of the B-BBEE scorecard, and emphasises disadvantage, and not just race, as the main driver of transformation. Otherwise, it risks reproducing the worst aspects of black economic empowerment, where the few are advantaged at the expense of the many.

The combined effect of the underfunding of the MDDA, the lack of policy to measure diversity and limit excessive media concentration, the shortcomings of the Competition Authorities in addressing diversity questions and the reduction of transformation to B-BBEE-driven de-racialisation, is that the environment has, by default, favoured media concentration. It has also led to the destruction of much of the independent, small commercial and community media, and opened the newspaper industry up to political attack. All these development have taken place on the ANC’s watch.

To the extent that reversals to print media transformation are a result of these factors, then the ANC must point the finger of blame, not only at the print media, but at itself too.

∗∗This article is based on a chapter for the forthcoming New South African Review (Wits University Press).

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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