That the craft of journalism is changing almost daily and traditional media has experienced unprecedented digital disruption is a statement of fact. Researchers are calling for South African journalists to take part in a survey that tracks journalists who have left the newsroom for freelance work, academia, PR and government communications.
The subsequent rate of attrition of journalists losing their jobs across the globe is staggering. Sub-editors are becoming extinct, and subs desks amalgamated into amorphous structures where expertise, fact-checking and gate-keeping are a thing of the past. At the same time, retraining in digital is not prioritised, and journalism unions are often accused of not having any teeth and being unsupportive.
Media houses are notoriously shy about the numbers of job losses (at least in South Africa, they are), and equally, not open about where they’re hiring, and what skills are at a premium for this modern media age. One thing is for sure, though, and that is that experience is no longer a valued commodity. Experience is expensive, and under-pressure news managers don’t just worry about getting exclusives, but how much they’re going to cost.
Wits University’s Dr Glenda Daniels calls it a “journalist bloodbath”, and its effects are noticeable in the quality of writing, editing and often a lack of context in stories. Daniels is heading the South African wing of a global journalism survey, The New Beats, which is focusing on “professional identity transitions”.
Professor Lawrie Zion, head of the department of communication and media at Le Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, is the lead investigator for the study. He says its core mission is to “find out what happens next in the working lives of journalists when they lose their jobs. Do they remain in journalism but move into different roles or platforms? Do they move into other fields where journalism skills are valued? Do they struggle to find work?”
Decimation of newsrooms
Daniels has just returned from Australia. “I found it fascinating at the research symposium in Australia last month how similar all the different countries were in terms of what had happened – there were subtle and nuanced differences. But basically, there has been a decimation of newsrooms; a journalist bloodbath which has affected quality in newspapers and broadcasting, a lack of context in stories, a traumatic transition to other identities for senior journalists, no mentorships for young ones coming into the trade (or profession),” she says.
Zion says seven countries have completed or are in the process of setting up studies along similar themes. “But in each case, the survey questions are adapted for local conditions,” he says. “We could see that no matter what the local differences from country to country, that nearly everywhere we looked, newsrooms were shrinking due to digital disruption, especially – in the case of newspapers – the rapid depletion of classified advertising revenue. So while there are differences in how this has played out, this is clearly a global phenomenon which raised a similar set of questions about journalists and the future of journalism.”
In Australia, says Zion, the research findings are being used to improve understanding of the whole process of forced career change. “We recently made a submission to a Senate Inquiry into the future of work, for instance. And we’ve also been working closely with our journalism, which is also being really responsive to the fact that more and more of their members are now moving from permanent jobs into more irregular work patterns such as freelancing,” he says.
Back in South Africa, says Daniels, she has already found that most media companies have not been training for digital first. “In South Africa so far I have found not all gloom and doom; conditions are difficult with measly freelance rates but there are journos who are experimenting with start-ups and some are succeeding,” she says.
Her focus is on professional identity transitions. “It’s important that the history of this transition is recorded,” she says. “It is really sad that the SA Union for Journalists (SAUJ) died about 10 years ago. I used to be a negotiator on behalf of the union in the late 90s and the year 2000. It was really effective in getting journalists good retrenchment packages at the very least.”
Daniels will be contacting Tuwani Gumani from the Media Workers Association of SA (MWASA) to chat and get more info, as well as the SA Freelance Association (SAFREA). Journalism trainer and data journalism proponent, Raymond Joseph is also keen to chat to Daniels about this as he is doing a lot of training for the new era.
“At the Sanef AGM last month we discussed this issue of job losses in the industry as a serious one, and said we had to do research on it,” Daniels says. “In some instances, companies are getting away with murder, I was about to say. “As you know The New Age closed last week and now it could be about 100 (?) I am not sure, lost their jobs, what happens to them…”
Zion says professional identity and financial security are enormously important and “so it was critical for our study that we understood what happens when those two things are disrupted”.
He adds, “Another theme that comes up whether we ask about it or not is that despite all the challenges that losing jobs can bring, many of those who left their jobs were also leaving behind workplaces that had become increasingly stressful. In Australia, for instance, we heard a lot about sadness being mixed with relief, and even an improved sense of wellbeing. We have also seen how much value journalists place in their relationships with former colleagues, both socially and for work contacts. They support each other and continue to share experiences both past and present.”
Researchers are calling for South African journalists to take part in the survey. It is anonymous and the research will be widely distributed as soon as it is completed.