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Can journalism survive when we give away news for free?

2020-07-17  Staff Reporter

Can journalism survive when we give away news for free?
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Robin Tyson

In both Namibia and South Africa, the print media is under strain. In South Africa, the publishers of Bona, Rooi Rose and Your Family have closed, and media giants such as Naspers have announced the closure of magazines such as Men’s Health and Runner’s World, affecting over 1 000 jobs. Other venerable magazines such as Drum are now published in digital format only.
In Namibia, the print media industry has followed suit, with many publications such as The Villager and Namibia Economist going online, and others, including The Namibian, announcing job cuts and voluntary retrenchments.
Raymond Joseph, who started with the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and is currently a journalism trainer, wrote recently on his Facebook group that the reason for newspapers and magazines closing in South Africa was “giving away expensive to produce content online for free.”
From a period where people bought newspapers, CDs and books, we have turned into a society of brazen thieves who have come to expect free (often stolen) content of books, articles, photographs, films and music. 
Stephen Witt, in his book How Music Got Free – What happens when an entire generation commits the same crime? explains how the invention and free distribution of the .mp3 code for computers and cellphones led to virtually the entire world sharing (stolen) music (for free) rather than buying it. It is now so commonplace that when one recommends a book or piece of music there comes the request for it to be scanned or ripped and downloaded (for free). 
We have become a nation of criminals who think nothing of stealing from artists and creators and then enjoying their work free of charge. We even use it to increase our own productivity. Taxi drivers, for example, will often use a memory stick of stolen music to entertain their passengers.
This increasingly applies to journalism. Why should I pay for a newspaper (and drive or walk to a place where I can buy it) when the stories are available online for free? Why should I pay to have a (poor quality print only) classified advert when I can publish what I want to sell (with full colour photographs and details) for free on Facebook? Why should I pay my TV licence when major events are now streamed by media houses online – for free?
And the process of creating print news content (which would previously have been a thoughtfully written and edited news story accompanied by, in some cases, a photograph taken by the newspaper’s resident photographer) has now become a hectic multi-media balancing act for, often, a young and inexperienced journalist. They are expected to take photographs, write the (print) story, write – often in real time – Twitter or Facebook feeds, and, in some cases, shoot, record, direct and produce a live streaming transmission of the press conference or news story. 
The result is poor all around, with mistakes increasingly creeping in. Stories refer to Covid-29, and when the mistake is pointed out by (online) readers, the journalist responds that “the mistake has been recified”, only to have their rectification rectified. An individual recently killed at Avis Dam was referred to as Daniele Ferrari in one online publication, Danielle Farrar in another. The attempts to stream live online video content is also often laughably amateurish, with a simple cellphone being used to cover complex events in large venues.  The result is damaging to the brand of the newspaper concerned, with online comments from viewers often highly critical of the poor sound or video quality. Again, attempting to complete a task with such basic equipment and under-trained videographers this is not their fault but that of management. In their rush to become ‘multi-media broadcasters’ print media houses have raced headlong into broadcasting without having the right equipment or the requisite number of trained staff to cover such events professionally.
Newspapers have also faltered in other areas such as advertising. Classified advertising has been largely taken over by independent websites or social media rather than newspapers. Thus a Google search for ‘property or cars for sale in Namibia’ will bring up sites such as and  Type in ‘items for sale Namibia’ and the first links are to (free) Facebook sites. The group ‘Buy and Sell Namibia’, for instance, has 201 406 members. It costs nothing to place a professional looking advert there in full colour and with attached photographs. The monochrome world of a print classified paid advert finds it difficult to compete. And in the desperate search for advertising revenue, some publications have overstepped the line between editorial and advertising content. The Namibian, for example, published pictures on their Facebook feeds (with no caption or explanation) of Licorice Alsorts (Beacon sweets). How badly such a promotion can backfire was illustrated with the comments from puzzled readers, including “what is wrong with these sweets?”
The final insult is newspapers who glorify their outdated technology by posting on Facebook, the night before, a copy of the printed edition that will appear the following day. They are, in effect, thumbing their nose at their old-fashioned print readers who will have to wait another 12 hours to read what has been written, perhaps, 24 hours previously. And, in a bizarre twist, the newspapers will update ‘breaking news’ stories throughout the day (and weekend) online, again underscoring the ineffectiveness of print.
Most stories are available, for free, on newspaper websites, but multinational platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are also used in order to further the reach of the stories. Not only do some papers simply use ‘Google Leads’ for adverts on their websites (creating bizarre advertising from people such as ‘Celeste – Angelic Medium) but, by posting on Facebook, they are also strengthening the advertising clout of that organisation, rather than their own strengths.
So what is the future? It could be, copying international practice, allowing readers access to, say, five stories a month, whereafter payment would be required (, or perhaps offering just a few lines of story and demanding payment for the rest ( 
It could involve a strategic re-examination of direction, with a focus on the strengths of print (strong written stories providing in-depth background and great photographs) rather than exposing the weaknesses of multi-media diversity. It could be increased co-operation between media houses, allowing a ‘pool’ of journalists to cover stories rather than sending representatives from every newspaper.
Whatever decisions are taken, the current objective of trying to cover all bases by offering free content on all platforms is obviously failing. Journalists need to be paid – the content they create can’t be free.
Robin Tyson is a media consultant based in Swakopmund.

2020-07-17  Staff Reporter

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