South African media faltering, random thoughts

The music industry was ground zero when it came to digital disruption but, over the last decade, has found a way to revive itself. Major labels have stakes in streaming services, like Spotify and, for a while, the 360-deal was all the rage. For independent labels, streaming, merchandising, publishing and licensing and performance ticket sales have been some of the main revenue streams.

The media industry, in my opinion, was the next sector to find itself at serious crossroads. Internationally, there was the expansion into events, apps, websites and the like, in an attempt to diversify revenue. The evolution of the business model has been affected by a constantly shifting of the landscape. The reality is there has been a lot of trial and error, which continues to happen. Platforms like Digiday, Folio and even Monocle’s The Stack (focused on magazines) have been documenting this extensively over the last decade.

In South Africa, the added challenge relates to how stratified the country continues to be in terms of race, class and location, but especially race. It has been most evident within the magazine space where publishers were being forced to shift from a very Western, Caucasian perspective to one that also reflects Black South Africa in a manner that is authentic, respectful and understanding.

I personally don’t think we have reached the point where this is the norm, which is painfully ironic in a country with a Black majority.

What this has meant is that, in addition to trying to pivot when it comes to business models, media practitioners have also had to contend with a consumer base that is extremely diverse, making it even harder to find a singular thread to build around. And if you don’t understand that audience, intrinsically, you are always going to fall short.

Plus, while it is important to draw from what is happening globally, it is necessary to consider these from a local perspective. Video in a country where the cost of connectivity is still high needs creative approaches, for example.

Internationally, media companies have been experimenting with email newsletters, online advertising, video productions, podcasts, subscriptions, paywalls, events, etc. I question whether we, in South Africa, and on the continent, have devoted enough thinking and action to figuring out what works within our unique environment. In some instances, it has felt like we are simply trying to transplant something that worked well elsewhere into our space. I have sat around boardroom tables and heard people in the industry talk about putting stories behind a paywall without considering, one, whether the stories are actually worth paying for and, two, can their audience afford to pay for such, let alone be willing to pay.

The reality is that media companies can’t be structured around a single platform any longer. There can’t be a ‘hero’ any more. It hasn’t been the case for a while but I find that traditional publishers and media companies in South Africa have been slow to recognise this. Acknowledged, organisational structures and human resources have also made it difficult to pivot.

And there are also issues around organisational structure and human resource capacity. I worked at a media company that tried to force print journalists to work with digital, audio and video in addition to print without supporting them to gain the skills. Journalists’ workload was tripled, without their bank accounts reflecting this or taking into consideration the reality that we only have 24 hours in a day.

Over the last five years, there has been the shuttering of multiple publications and media businesses. Every time it happens, we lament the ‘death of an industry’, throw opinions around as to why it happened and what should have been done, and then carry on.

With the Covid-19 pandemic, we can’t keep plugging along, maintaining the status quo with minor, superficial tweaks. It is a painful, and brutal, wake-up call for so many of us. But, perhaps, the silver lining is that we get to reimagine what media is going forward. The media conversation is a business model conversation. It is an audience conversation. It is a social conversation. We need to approach it holistically without losing sight of our humanity.

Random thoughts.

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