Interview: Nic Dawes

How much room for growth is there in print media?

NIC DAWES: The trend over the past few years has been an across-the-board decline in circulation, but not in revenue as print advertising still dominates. There remains considerable appetite for serious financial, investigative and political papers. There is also space for growth in solid, locally targeted metropolitan newspapers, as well as those in vernacular languages such as Zulu. These are market segments that had been underserved in the past, and with growing literacy and spending power amongst these communities, advertising can be far more targeted. So I see print staying relevant at the top and lower ends of the market, with those catering to the middle ground most at risk.

The online news market has been slow to take off due to low penetration and the high cost of broadband. This has provided a layer of insulation for print, though this is changing gradually with internet penetration growing rapidly and with media planners better grasping the potential of online advertising. The cost of paper for printing has gone up considerably more than general inflation, further prompting the migration online.

How would you rate the quality of journalism in South Africa today?

DAWES: The line of thinking that says that the quality of journalism has declined in recent years seems strange to me. Under apartheid we had many newspapers that, broadly speaking, supported the regime, whereas the press today is more diverse and reflective of the make-up of the country. As Nelson Mandela once said, a technically bad free press is still better than a technically good non-free press. There may be some serious weaknesses that impact on technical quality, such as newsrooms not being well enough resourced, but things have markedly improved quality-wise in terms of press freedom and debate. Ultimately, market forces and public pressure will always lead to unworthy and non-trusted publications exiting the market. With the growth of social media, newspapers are being closely monitored and scrutinised, and if we make mistakes on a continual basis people will shout loudly, leading to commercial death. As a profession and industry, we also take self-regulation extremely seriously and need to if we want to ensure our survival.

How will the Protection of State Information Bill affect the fourth estate?

DAWES: The current bill is a great deal better than it was when it was originally proposed two years ago, but it nonetheless poses a clear and present danger. The changes that have been made so far were all necessary, but are not sufficient to make it a piece of legislation safe for democracy. This is not to say that it takes us back to the apartheid era, but it reminds us of a more authoritarian approach to information gathering. It imposes a choice for journalists and civil society between obeying their conscience and exposing corruption, or obeying an ambiguous law that mandates that they report offenses to the nearest police station or risk facing jail time. Another problem is that departments outside security can find ways to opt-in, and the bill’s scope can underhandedly be extended to issues of non-national security. It will put off not just journalists, but also whistleblowers from sharing information with any kind of state institution. Should the bill be enacted, we will challenge it in the Constitutional Court, where I think we stand a reasonable chance of overturning it on the basis that freedom of speech and information are fundamental rights and core to the constitution.

The Media Appeals Tribunal needs to be rejected outright, as it places the adjudication of sensitive ethical issues in the hands of people who owe their appointments to politicians. Print media is already subject to overlapping regulatory spheres, whereby an ethical commitment from within the industry has a greater impact than statutory regulation. As to the ownership transformation proposal, this should not be used to gain political control. It must be about encouraging diversity, not handing outlets to the politically connected.