At the Franschhoek Literary Festival I attended a one-hour panel discussion on ‘It’s news to me’, with heavy-weight panelists weighted to print media, a well-attended session. Ironically the complete communication failure in Franschhoek yesterday meant that no one could Tweet or share via any other form of Social Media what the eminent panel had to say about press freedom.
Ray Hartley was the panel chairman, and works in the Times Media Group, having previously been the editor of the Sunday Times. He resigned from the position, took a sabbatical, and now has a senior position in the Group. Much of the panel discussion focused on press freedom, ethics, and the depth of research of journalist’s stories, which were felt to be getting thinner on accuracy and content, much of the material of newspapers coming from Twitter and Reuters feeds. Hartley impressed with his humility and good chairing of the panel. He raised a laugh when he welcomed all the attendees who clearly didn’t get into the sold-out session addressed by Archbishop Tutu. The topic clearly was of interest, with the Franschhoek High School hall being full.
Janet Heard is a journalist wunderkind, her father Tony having been a well-known and highly regarded editor of the Cape Times. In 2010 she went to Harvard on a prestigious Nieman Journalism fellowship, and said she returned from the USA surprised about how much transformation had taken place in the newsroom at Independent Newspapers in the time that she was away. She resigned as deputy editor of the Cape Times earlier this year, and has been appointed as parliamentary editor of all the Media 24 titles. Heard praised South Africa’s media as being robust with good media voices asking questions. This is not liked (by the government, one assumes), and efforts are being made to reverse the criticism. The Secrecy Bill and other measures to close down critical voices means that journalists have to be more careful, and fight for their right to tell their stories. It’s about ‘responsible journalism’, with quality content and ethical writing, she said. Qualitative investigative journalism costs time, and is a luxury internationally in a cash-strapped media industry. She appealed to media owners to create a space for responsible journalism. Her criticism of newsrooms being bled dry of good writers and sub-editors already started under the Irish ownership of the company, Heard said. The new owners of Independent Newspapers have been criticised for their government connections, to such an extent that all state advertising is said to be moving to Independent Newspapers titles, away from the Sunday Times! In principle media owners support transformation, but do not put enough money behind it, it was said.
Noseweek editor Martin Welz is a colourful character, ideal for a panel, usually having a different point of view. He felt that social pressures and laws governing the media were more powerful in the past. His publication has just ignored them most of the time, especially the Divorce Act, which does not allow the mention of the names of the parties involved. Welz feels that it is in the public interest to report on those cases that reflect ‘judicial prejudice’ against women, and even sometimes men. He uses his ‘common sense‘ as to what he reports on and how far he can go. It is clear that the ‘kleptocratic‘ government does not want its ‘criminalism’ exposed, he said.While his publication has the readership, which is growing, he is in the hands of the Post Office for its distribution, the recent regular strikes creating reader dissatisfaction in the late arrival of their magazines. He spoke for Social Media, and said that there is nothing to beat Google to research stories. He cautioned in receiving information for free via the internet, as there must be a catch, usually in terms of advertising one is exposed to. Journalism is a serious profession, it’s ‘not just taking a snap of a crash at the side of a road with one’s iPhone ‘!
567 Cape Talk and Talk Radio 702 presenter and Daily Maverick contributor Stephen Grootes was a surprise (and welcome) addition to the panel, not having been announced on the program. He spoke from a Social Media perspective (he has 64000 Twitter followers, by far the largest number of all the panel members), and the immediacy of a radio reporter. He was scathing of print media owners, who are not getting the immediacy of doing business! He related his experience in wanting to subscribe to the Sunday Times, its subscription offices not being available on a Sunday, and the delivery of his newspaper only commencing 4 – 6 weeks after his subscription call! He also criticised the out-of-datedness of newspapers, readers receiving yesterday’s news today! The media he is involved with is seeing numbers of listeners and readers growing, and these supporters become the protectors of the mediums should they be threatened by the authorities. The ANC is increasingly worried about the increasing criticism. He said that no one watches the ANN7 TV station. By contrast eTV is secure in large budgets and good lawyers, with support from the ‘White middle class’ he said, so it would be difficult to shut the TV station down. ‘Information has become commoditised‘, he said. He warned the media owners about the vast number of young readers who will only read news on the ‘net, and not in papers.
The fifth panelist was Simon Pearson, a UK obituarist, former journalist and now Night Editor of The Times in London. He added only one gem to the discussion, which was that the media peers are controlling press freedom in the UK, a unique form of control. Hacking by journalists of celebrities and politicians demonstrated that these newspapers ‘lost sight of what is important’, and now self-regulation‘ is the order of the day.
Heard told her fellow panelists to stop comparing newspaper and internet journalism, saying that they are one and the same thing, communicating and distributing the news in two different ways. The culture of a newsroom, in getting a story (‘who can we nail today?‘) and to speak to the truth, is weakening, largely due to lack of budget to employ quality journalists.. While readership figures of newspapers are available from market research surveys, no similar information is available for internet news sites. In question time I asked about the declining quality of spelling and grammar in newspapers, and Heard replied that it is due to the declining quality of journalists employed!
All in all, this session of the Franschhoek Literary Festival was worthwhile attending, with intelligent panelists and a warm but sharp panel chairman.
POSTSCRIPT 20/5: Stephen Grootes has expanded upon the views he expressed in the ‘It’s news to me’ session at the Franschhoek Literary Festival in his column in the Daily Maverick today.
Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage