Media must adapt or die

An unsure future for journalism

09 May 2018 | Events

As Namibian media houses fight to adapt to and profit within a fast-changing media landscape, experts warn that not only quality journalism is at stake, but also media freedom, ethics and independence.

During a panel discussion at an event to commemorate World Press Freedom Day in Windhoek yesterday, a media studies professor at the University of Cape Town, Herman Wasserman, warned that media sustainability in southern Africa was closely linked to media freedom and ethics.

“When we become vulnerable economically, we also become vulnerable politically,” he said.

Wassermann highlighted the results of a study completed in 2010, which found that media sustainability in southern Africa was already in decline nearly a decade ago.

He said the study noted that “financing and media management is the weak link threating media sustainability and independence”.

He added that once media independence was threatened, the doors were opened “for all sorts of nefarious interests”, whether political or economic.

Wassermann added that while media sustainability was a global concern for an industry that was “struggling with the issue of sustainability in a rapidly and seemingly ongoing changing landscape”, the fragile economic, political and social context of Africa added another dimension of concern for the region's media.

“There are things we should be extra concerned about. We have to think of media sustainability also as an issue with implications for media freedom and media ethics.”

Wasserman highlighted the distinction between media profitability and media sustainability.

“Media profitability is a market question that also brings its challenges and problems in and of itself,” including the influence that is wielded by powerful advertisers who can have an impact on media freedom and ethics.

“But sustainability means the media has to sustain itself, it has to survive, in order to serve the public interest. Public interest is always what you have to bear in mind,” the professor said.



A local warning

A draft research report on media sustainability undertaken by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), presented at yesterday's event, found that while the Namibian media were experimenting with ways to adapt to the new media landscape, significant challenges remained that needed urgent attention to ensure quality journalism was not undermined or eliminated.

IPPR researcher Dietrich Remmert noted that the two major disruptive factors currently faced by the media were the economic recession and the radical transformation of how news is accessed by readers, here and elsewhere.

Remmert warned that while advertising and marketing budgets were shrinking, advertisers were also increasingly prioritising online spending to attract consumers, dealing another blow to traditional media models.

Remmert said the research indicated that overwhelmingly, Namibian media houses were not sufficiently prepared for the stark transition they faced.

The IPPR research found that many were “far more concerned with the current recession and less concerned with what is going to happen in the long term regarding online, regarding digitisation,” he said.

Remmert warned that shrinking newsrooms and the unsuccessful application of experimental and new business models could have a devastating impact on journalism in terms of quality and capacity in Namibia.



There is a way

Gwen Lister, representing the Namibia Media Trust (NMT), yesterday said Namibian media needed to “take a long, introspective look at themselves, and the quality of content they put out”.

She said in an effort to ensure quality journalism and sustainability, the media must find ways to be “creative and innovative in order to get to the youth again, and get them back to not simply clicking on data, but getting them back to reading and interested in quality information.”

Lister emphasised that another crucial factor in ensuring the survival of quality media was to educate people on how to find news “that is good for them and can benefit their lives.”

She said teaching media literacy, and creating a better understanding of the need for good journalism, was crucial.

Wassermann agreed that the question was not on what platform journalism survived, but what type of journalism survived, whether online or elsewhere.

He argued that the core issue for journalists and the media industry was to re-establish relationships and trust with audiences and to distinguish one media house from another by offering unique and quality content.

“Do good journalism and invest money in doing good journalism, so that audiences can start trusting you again and choose your outlet rather than another,” he advised.

JANA-MARI SMITH