COVID-19: South African media industry faces worst crisis ever, says new report

Fakir Hassen

Johannesburg, Jun 2 (PTI) South Africa's media industry is facing its worst crisis ever with the COVID-19 pandemic having accelerated job losses, the closure of print publications and the looming threat of widespread retrenchments, according to a new report.

For many years, South Africa's news industry, particularly the print media, has bucked international trends by managing to stay afloat by claiming a slice of an ever reducing pie of advertising revenue.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has 'effectively taken that pie away and what is left is a news industry desperately looking for new ways of sustaining itself while audience demands for timely, credible but free news surges', said the study commissioned by the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF).

'The effect of the lockdown announced on March 23 and attendant regulations, has had a devastating effect on the established media,” it said .

Last month, two publishers announced the closure of a dozen popular magazine titles, some of which had been published for decades.

'Away from the limelight, small, independent, hyperlocal print publications were also ravaged. This was in the first phase of the lockdown as small publishers were unable to access emergency funding, resulting in the loss of an estimated 300 to 400 journalistic jobs.

“Workers at three of the so-called ‘Big 4’ print media companies were forced to take salary cuts of up to 45% and temporary lay-offs have been widely implemented,' said the report released on Monday.

The report said huge drops in advertising revenue which publications and broadcasters rely on have had a severe impact during the lockdown, in some cases dropping by 100 per cent.

Ironically, at the same time as advertising revenue has dropped, demand for accurate news from credible sources, both online and broadcasting, has soared.

'Perhaps the biggest upside of this dark period for the industry has been the massive surge in traffic to credible online news sources. Traffic to news websites increased by 72% in March, while these sites saw a 44% growth in unique browsers. Many news websites saw double-digit growth in their audience numbers,' the report noted.

Social media such as Facebook might also have been affected by lower ad revenue, but have resources so much greater than local media they would be able to shrug it off.

“The same applies to Google, which may have seen a decline in ad revenue too. Netflix, and other streaming services, along with YouTube will have seen audience growth during the lockdown. This is symptomatic of what may happen in the news media generally, that is that the stronger participants in the industry become even stronger at the expense of the weaker,' the study said.

The report suggested that getting the audience to pay for the news through subscriptions, particularly online subscriptions, and building closer relationships with readers through membership models, could be explored further as alternative sources of income for some media. PTI FH SCY SCY