In Annapolis, Maryland in the USA, five employees of the Capital Gazette were gunned down by a lunatic last week. The shockwaves reverberated through the world, and in newsrooms, whether small or big, journalists were asking themselves the question: “Is it worth it?”
We tend to think of our own problems in South Africa as unique. We believe we have the most crooked politicians, that crime is getting out of hand and we simply love to drive the “us and them” agenda. Yes, “they” are taking our jobs, “they” will take our land or “they” have taken our land. Incidents such as the Annapolis shooting again shows us that we are all in the same boat. We are dealing with similar opportunistic and often idiotic “leaders”, and our messengers are under threat.
The Annapolis shooting occurred a bit more than a year after president Donald Trump declared that the media are “the enemy of the American people”. The shooter apparently had a grudge with the newspaper, starting before Trump uttered these words, but such irresponsible statements create an environment wherein a growing number of people feel justified to act on their irrational hatred.
Much of the sameness is happening in our country. We have (I wanted to say shitloads full of, but let’s be decent) dozens of politicians who are simply fearmongers, specializing in working up emotions and driving the “us and them” agenda. The one thing that stands in their way is good-quality and objective journalism. It is not the Facebook postings or the Whatsapp messages that will expose them, but the well-researched articles and the real facts.
In a brilliant opinion piece published last week, Tim Grobaty of the Long Beach Post writes the following:
“…the media is not the enemy of the American people; that’s one of the more dangerous of the lies that are flooding the country today. Rather, the media, especially in the form of small community newspapers, is among the American people’s best friends and vigilant guardians.
In little communities all across the country, journalists from small newspapers—mostly weeklies—are the reader’s neighbors. They live where their readers live, shop where their readers shop, share their readers’ concerns…
…real news of what’s going on and what’s important in many American neighborhoods still comes from small community newspapers, and many of them are thriving while the major dailies are, to admit to one man’s assessment, failing.
To add to the woes is the fact that many politicians see the media as overzealous watchdogs. And they’re right to think so; their fear is warranted, because that’s what the small newspapers do so well: Keep a steady eye on the opportunistic city government, the shady school board, the double-dipping water commissioner. And there’s a direct relationship between a town’s size and its paper: The smaller the city, the more important its paper is to the community.”
Tim Grobaty is my hero - for this week at least - because he could not have stated it better. Our communities now, more than ever before, need their small newspapers. These voices are part of the very few things that will help save them from the clutches of the greedy and the corrupt.
I truly do not believe we live in a society where people hate each other. You will, of course, get a percentage of racists and crooks. They come in all sizes and shapes and in an assortment of shades. You get good people and you get bad people – and that is it. We live in communities where people are (by a great majority) good people.
The role of the journalist in a community is to expose the bad people, but not lose track of the fact that most people are good. As Grobaty said, we live where our readers live, we meet them at the shops, we share their concerns. We can also spot when a politician climbs onto his or her soap box and tells the world that our people are bad people. We know they are not.
But, as either Voltaire or Spiderman said, with great power comes great responsibility. I very much doubt if the media have that much power, but they do take on great responsibility. It means that we need to be excellent watchdogs, not just overzealous lapdogs.
The journalist should also take heed of the fact that “it takes two to tango”. For every corrupt official, there is someone in the private sector simply too willing to join in the looting of the scarce resources.
The past weekend’s Forum for Community Media’s award event was encouraging. The Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror’s journalists received no fewer than 11 top-10 category mentions. Between the “Limpopo twins” they collected one trophy (best investigative journalism) and two third places (best human-interest reporter and best hard-news reporter). This may not seem very impressive, but take into account that this is one of the very few independent newspaper groups left in the country that is economically self-sustainable. To boast five journalists who receive national acknowledgement out of such a small newsroom takes some doing. Not even the big publishing groups could achieve this.
All this means that we are serious about doing what is expected of us. We may not always get it right, but we try really hard. We battle on amidst ever-increasing obstacles, the biggest being the world-wide eroding in revenue models.
For centuries, content providers relied on an advertising model to subsidize news. In the last decade the “new kids on the block” such as Facebook and Google have managed to usurp this monetization model, leaving behind only some crumbs for newspapers trying to survive. The local or neighbourhood newspapers managed to survive for longer, but even here the casualties are becoming common.
This should be a wake-up call for businesses in deciding where to spend their advertising budget. Spending it on SMSs and buying one or two databases containing thousands of phone numbers and email addresses are attractive options. With the assistance of a mail server, you can spam millions of people. It may be unethical and bordering on illegal, but, so what? It’s cheap!
Many ways exist to do cheap marketing, but once you have made that decision, just remember: you are also a resident of the area, dependent on proper service delivery. You are also someone who would want the rule of law to protect citizens against abuse, whether from government or private business. You will also need a watchdog.
You may just get what the crooked “leaders” are hoping for. (Anton van Zyl - Editor)