The smorgasbord of challenges in the Namibian media is largely of its own making.
Namibian media today face a crisis of management and leadership, the effects of a historical lack of innovation and investment and a looming mental health catastrophe.
To be clear: As an editor, I am as much to blame for the deterioration and lack of trust journalism is suffering as any of my colleagues.
For years the media allowed people to leave the industry as it stiffed its talent out of money. The only way you earn good money in the media is by becoming a manager.
Today, most top positions in Namibian media are occupied by ill-equipped sharks, the connected and holders of paper qualifications.
Many media managers resemble that drunk uncle who stayed at the wedding reception for too long. He’s tripping over his shoelaces, making inappropriate comments and still dancing as they clean the hall.
Media managers fought for perks and top salaries for themselves while leaving reporters to languish in poverty. Some editors make as much as N$80 000 per month while an experienced reporter may take home around N$12 000.
When I joined the media almost 20 years ago, the dishevelled, hard-drinking image of journalists was glorified. We didn’t know they drank, often on other’s accounts, because of the stress in newsrooms and life as a working poor person.
For a long time, the emphasis on good language skills ruled the roost in newsrooms. Reporters were taught on the job, so a solid foundation in any field wasn’t deemed necessary.
The wave of journalism degree holders then flooded newsrooms, finding a hostile experienced crop rejoicing in their every blunder.
Quickly, those with skills or qualifications found their way into public relations and government jobs that paid better and came without the mental and financial trauma of the newsroom.
Owners and leadership of media houses appointed the cheapest and best-connected candidates at the head of these institutions, stealing the ability to innovate and prepare for the storm media currently faces.
Print runs have been decimated as returns grow and Covid-19’s lockdown has gifted us 16-page national papers (which used to refuse to print anything less than 32 pages with around 50% advertising loading) due to the lack of advertising.
To add insult to injury, sales departments, generally dumping grounds for chancers, have miserably failed to innovate and capitalise on their reach and niche.
Therefore, the bunker they were supposed to have built doesn’t exist and they can’t launch a survival bid.
The Covid-19-fuelled depression will bury many.
Five years ago while the world’s leading media houses retrenched, shrunk and went exclusively online, Namibian newspapers invested in or explored investing in printing presses.
The size of our broadcasting houses’ staff compliments and equipment speaks of an era long gone.
The convergence storm hitting Namibian newsrooms is 20 years late and editors are still struggling with reporters who haven’t seen the light.
Many editors remain desk-bound and can’t differentiate between Twitter and the company website.
Years ago, you couldn’t get a Namibian editor into a lecture hall to give a pep talk or engage students on the issues of the day. Too high and mighty, regarding these institutions with disdain and rubbishing the quality of their products.
Unfortunately, the media graduate is still woefully unprepared for the rigours and madness of the newsroom, but they have long since stopped going there.
Twenty years ago, graduates only needed good English, ask the right questions, and see a story where others couldn’t, be honest and maybe take an average quality picture.
Editors could panel beat whatever they received into an acceptable story, as they had time to prepare for tomorrow’s paper or tonight’s news bulletin.
Today, cub reporters need to do all that, edit their own copy, record and edit video, pictures and audio for broadcast, live tweet and write for online and the platform their employer specialises in… as the news unfolds.
Media graduates used to use the newsroom as a segue into PR, NGO or government jobs, now they skip the newsroom entirely.
The revolving doors of media houses are now entertaining accounting, economics, legal and even medical graduates.
But they won’t stay if they’re paid peanuts, receive poor training and have to bear the brunt of the toxicity and lack of time of the overworked editors they report to.
Years of under-investment and lack of staff development have left newsrooms with a dangerously flat hierarchy, an insecure management class, incapable of performing their ever-changing jobs at a good enough standard. The lack of quality has threatened both the media’s survival and the colleagues who report to them.
Trust in media has been dented severely.
All while a mental health bomb ticks in our newsrooms.
For years it was written off as a drug and alcohol problem, an inability to cope with the stress, a bad attitude or worse ‘women’s problems’.
Reporters are often confronted with the worst society can throw at us.
Because we don’t live and work in a war zone, we don’t get the mental health check-up or therapy so many of us don’t think we need.
Many journalists who have medical aid don’t even know that their plan pays for therapy.
Managers, who often need help themselves, don’t encourage their colleagues to go for therapy.
They also don’t create an atmosphere where addressing mental health issues is allowed.
Their newsrooms are often the last place the occupants want to be.
The vibe in our newsrooms stink.
Many journalists are either on anti-depressants or self-medicating with alcohol or recreational drugs.
To survive, Namibian media houses need to better use analytics and research of their content.
But we shouldn’t become slaves to analytics and never forget those who aren’t connected to online news platforms.
We need to learn from those who faced the carnage before us.
We need to focus on making economics understandable for everyone, on local government and politics, court and crime reporting, issues of governance, illustrate data better and stop paying lip service to investigative reporting.
We have to become active in the publics, like universities, who impact our entities and work on cooperating with ourselves, and others, to improve the quality of our content and help us survive.
*Johnathan Beukes writes in his personal capacity.