Envisioning a Media Relief Fund in Southern Africa in the post-COVID-19 era

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■ Admire Mare

 

Most governments in Southern Africa were quick announce rescue packages for informal and formal businesses, yet there was no specific mention of the bailouts that would be extended to media organisations despite evidence showing their precarious financial position well before the advent of the deadly coronavirus (also known as COVID-19).

The issue of sustainability of news organisations became topical during the early phases of what has been described as the ‘digital disruption’, whereby the entrance of social media platforms into the news production and consumption ecosystem led to declining advertising revenue especially for the print media.

However the fast-spreading coronavirus has also been accompanied by the closure of several news outlets and retrenchment of thousands of journalists across the world.

The situation has become dire in South Africa, where the Mail and Guardian has since revealed its precarious financial situation. The Associated Media Publishing (AMP), which published Cosmopolitan, House & Leisure, Good Housekeeping and Women on Wheels has already closed shop. The Daily Sun has announced that it has published its last print issue of the newspaper for regions other than Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West in South Africa.

Whilst a few media organisations in Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) have come out in the open seeking financial bailouts in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to highlight that the print media industry in particular is going through a tumultuous period.

The print media has witnessed the migration and dissipation of advertising, the shrinkage of classifieds section and underinvestment in investigative journalism. 

This is partly because of the shrinking advertising budgets and changing news consumption patterns in Africa and beyond. As more and more media consumers shift towards relying on accidental news via timelines, news feeds, WhatsApp groups and hashtags, established advertisers have begun to chase eyeballs on social media platforms.

In order to fend off this tsunami, the print media has experimented with digital and mobile first strategies with mixed results. Some media organisations have managed to grow a significant amount of audiences on Twitter and Facebook but have failed dismally to monetise this resource. Others have cultivated high levels of engagement on social media platforms but again failed to turn it into financial resources.

Reasons for failure to monetise content and audiences online vary from country to country. But generally, it has to do with the socio-economic context in which media organisations in Southern Africa operate. Most of our economies have not been performing well for the past five years in SADC. This has had a knock-on impact on the sustainability of news organisations, which rely on advertising revenue to keep their lights on and pay staff.

Another reason has to do with the inability to reimagine the future of news as an industrial product within the newsrooms. Besides the launching of paywalls, subscriptions and mobile news packages, media outlets in SADC have done little to go beyond cut and paste models transplanted from the developed world.

Thus before the coming in of COVID-19, the writing was already on the wall of most news organisations in Southern Africa. However, the implementation of lockdown measures has seen sales of print media products dropping significantly.

There is urgent need to come up with context-specific newsroom interventions that can address the current challenges, which have the net effect of contributing towards the extinction of the print media in the long run.

Such a scenario will be disastrous given the role that the print media plays in informing and educating the citizens on a myriad of issues, including public health campaigns. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic period, the mainstream media has continued to provide us with important updates on lockdown, self and imposed quarantines, biomedical interventions and social welfare policies.

In this case, traditional media platforms like newspapers, radio and television must be conceptualised as crucial channels for the government and other key stakeholders in the public health ecosystem to circulate credible and truthful information. These channels are also important for debunking conspiracy theories, misinformation, disinformation and propaganda associated with the coronavirus.

If nothing is done in the short-to-medium term, we are likely to see more media organisations filing for bankruptcy. This suggests that something has to be done in order to flatten the curve of media closure and incapacitation in Southern Africa.

If our governments in the SADC region have managed to acquire ventilators, masks and personal protecting clothing for public health workers who are part of the frontline workers in a bid to manage the fast-spreading global pandemic, there is also need to secure ‘financial ventilators’ for the media to survive in the post-covid-19 era.

In view of the above scenarios, this installment will discuss four models of media relief funding that can be rolled out in order to save the news media in the SADC region.

These include: the media relief fund financed and coordinated by the national government (similar to the Media Development and Diversity Agency in South Africa), a donor coordinated media relief fund (where media development funds are channeled through MISA Chapters to deserving beneficiaries), a media resilience fund (whereby platform companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google and so forth are compelled to share some of their paid advertising revenue with local news organisations) and an international media support programme (coordinated and underwritten by the United Nations, UNESCO).

Firstly, I propose the implementation of what I call the media relief fund financed and coordinated by the national government through the Ministry of Information and Publicity. It can take the form of a fully-fledged quasi-governmental agency like the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA) in South Africa and the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust (ZMMT). Such a set up must be able to operate independently from the government so that it cannot be accused of capture, editorial interference and partisan financial support.

More importantly, there should be checks and balances to ensure that deserving media organisations receive the financial bailouts.

Secondly, a donor coordinated media relief fund (whereby media assistance funds are channeled through independent and transparent civil society organisations). Here, donors can work with MISA Chapters in the SADC region to disburse funds. Transparency and financial reports must be inserted into the grant application and disbursement mechanisms.

Thirdly, a media resilience fund (whereby platform companies like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google and so forth are compelled to share some of their paid advertising revenue with local news organisations). In this case, news organisations would be expected to apply for assistance to a dedicated fund. In Australia, the Competition and Consumer Commission is already developing a mandatory code between news media and platform companies, which would force the latter to share their advertising revenue with the former.

Over and above, the sharing of advertising revenue, the code would ensure that the platform companies are able to negotiate in good faith on how to pay news media for use of their content, advise news media in advance of algorithm changes that would affect content rankings, favour original source news content in search page results, and share data with media companies. Once this code has been passed, it would pave way for similar initiatives in Africa and other continents.

In a preemptive move, Facebook has already circulated calls for applications for news media companies focusing on local news in South Africa. The grant is expected to assist media companies deal with the economic impact of the COVID-19 and the digital disruption.

Fourthly, an international media support programme coordinated and underwritten by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) could be set up. Through its national offices, UNESCO can receive applications for the media assistance programme. The selection of beneficiaries can be undertaken by a committee (made up of experts) in each SADC member state.

Noteworthy to highlight that the above proposals have their own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, in a country where government interference in the media sector is more pronounced, the adoption of a media relief fund administered through the ministry may be resisted by some news organisations. This is largely because such a model can lead to media capture, editorial interference and structural censorship of media content.

Be that as it may, relying on donor funding has been criticized in some quarters for creating a dependency syndrome. Corporate sponsorship has also been critiqued for contributing towards subtle editorial influences especially if it’s coming from a major advertiser in the media system.

It must be underscored that there are no one-size-fit-all solutions in this crisis period and beyond but something urgent has to be done to address the precarious state of the news organisations in SADC before its too late.

- Dr. Admire Mare is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST). He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg. Here he writes in his personal capacity.

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