Polishing turds won’t save our papers

Circulation of English language broadsheets in South Africa is largely in decline. We all know that. But the response hasn’t been to invest in better content. Instead, staff numbers have been slashed, news from elsewhere gets regurgitated and a fixation with other media – websites, multimedia and, of course, Twitter – has developed.

Most of our broadsheets have become emaciated pastiches of newspapers, stuffed with copy from the news wires. I’m sick of seeing SAPA reports every time I turn the page – all too often they’re badly written, inaccurate and lacking nuance and context. The shoddy copy is hardly surprising when the overstretched and under resourced agency is often one of the few news organisations that actually bothers to cover a host of events across South Africa.

Across the spectrum, the desire to offer compelling, relevant content to readers seems to have evaporated. While cost-cutting and declining ad revenue has obviously impacted on the quality of content, a championing of mediocrity is as much to blame. Gone are the days, it seems, when South Africa’s journalists actually went out and hunted down exclusives. Instead, we’re served up stories that are in within easy reach: it’s so much easier to fill column inches about the folk across the corridor or fulminate interminably about the latest antics of Malema (or new bad boy on the block Jimmy Manyi) than it is to deliver an exposé about muti murders in Limpopo. Even areas not too far beyond the comfortable confines of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs seem too much of a stretch: the best, most comprehensive reporting on Diepsloot’s mob justice was in the New York Times – not in any of our rags. This results in the ANCYL’s buffoonery or Manyi’s madness getting disproportionate coverage. South Africa is a vast and astonishingly complex, diverse nation. It’s a great injustice that our newspapers largely fail to reflect this, and that so many stories remain untold.

The Independent newspapers are beyond redemption, almost. Regional titles like the Cape Argus do an adequate job covering their cities, but news about their respective provinces is poor, and international coverage completely reliant on wire copy.

Business Day is possibly our last credible daily. Its shrunken newsroom remains populated with some good reporters, but pressure from the bean counters still means an over-reliance on wire agencies as well as liberal copy-and-pasting of content from its big sister, London’s Financial Times. A lack of presence in the rest of Africa is a major disadvantage: a title committed to seriously covering African business should have bureaus in Lagos and Nairobi – or, in these straitened economic times, at least a set of reliable freelancers and stringers reporting out of these budding business hubs.

I read with dismay a few days ago that Business Day was developing an app for iPad. I’m no Luddite, but I think it’s a crying shame knowing that money’s being wasted on a gimmick when it should be rather spent on improving the paper’s core product.

In a developing country like our own, printed paper remains the best way of being accessible and affordable to your audience. Even with exciting developments like iMaverick on the horizon, tablets will still remain out of reach for millions of South Africans. Broadsheet titles won’t grow readership or convert the emerging middle class into devoted fans by wasting money on a snazzy app, especially if this is done at the expense of delivering quality content.

While the web plays an important role in both disseminating and shaping the news agenda, it can easily become distraction. Journalists and editors should undoubtedly be at ease with social media tools, but you can’t help thinking that if editors spent more time editing, and if journalists spent more time writing instead of tweeting, there would be a better paper at the end of it.

When we presented ideas that were beautifully rendered but conceptually weak, my branding course lecturers at college told us we were polishing a turd: we were trying to dress up something that was still, ultimately, shit. This is true of Times Live – after yet another facelift this week, the SAPA copy and celeb fluff may now appear in a slightly different layout but the content still remains largely dismal. A chunk of Sunday Times/The Times’s whopping digital budget would be better spent on hiring a few fact-checkers.

This is not a universal tale of woe. The Mail & Guardian is less provincial than many of its peers, regularly serving up vital investigations and engaging reportage about urgent issues. Its amaBhungane project is an exciting manifestation of its wonderfully old fashioned commitment to holding the powerful to account. Another weekly, the Financial Mail, is an elegant and essential business briefing. Online, The Daily Maverick deserves applause for its fresh, intelligent writing while Politicsweb embarrasses our print dailies by offering a far superior dose of political commentary, with the likes of RW Johnson and Rhoda Kadalie contributing regularly to the site.

Clearly there’s hope for quality journalism in South Africa. But if our papers keep dishing up myopic reporting and superficial analysis, their terminal decline will only be accelerated, not reversed. Slick apps and websites are all good and well, but if paired with poor content, they offer old media more of a red herring than a white knight.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Polishing turds won’t save our papers

  1. Gooey

    I *so* enjoyed this column… thank you.

  2. Rhoda Kadalie

    Alex this is brilliant. Just yesterday I spoke with one of our editors about how one single man, namely Tony O’Reilly, single-handedly destroyed the Independent newspapers, a brand that was known for its in your face rapportage before apartheid. Sadly, he had enough sycophants who helped him destroy the paper. Today it is mainly the white english liberal media, with the exception of Business Day, that is nauseatingly politcally correct. You should write the book about how O’Reilly destroyed one of the most important sources of newsmaking in SA. Rhoda Kadalie

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