Covid-19 accelerated digital shifts amidst media house closures Building upon research on the impact of new technologies and online communication on the media industry Pickard and Williams (2014) and Berger et al. (2015) affirm emerging Covid-19-related research showing the accelerated and devastating impact of the pandemic on the media (SANEF 2020; Olurunyomi 2021; Taremwa 2021). The findings indicate that the transition processes that were under way from old to new models, were given impetus, as one South African discussant elaborated:
Through retrenchments and restructuring over the last few years, many newspapers only managed to cut costs enough to continue for another few years but we see later with Covid, many magazines and small print media houses closed. (South African Discussant, SANEF 2020 report)
This accelerated the digital shift within media houses, as reported by all discussants. The shift was attributed to restrictions in movement that led to consumers and media producers going digital. During the pandemic, the print operations and supply structures ceased to be functional and at some time, several were not printing—as elaborated by a Zimbabwean discussant:
Print media in Zimbabwe just stopped the printing of its already dwindling supply because there were no readers out there. People were not out and about buying because most of the newspapers still rely on the street sales. People were at home and they concentrated on looking for news and information online.
The urban and elitist centeredness of legacy media, as documented in the country media barometres, meant that with this concentrated subscription base, the restriction (lockdown) that ensued becasue of the pandemic would naturally deal the media a heavy blow. We get a clearer picture from our informant from Zimbabwe:
And the structure of the market is such that between 60% to 80% of the market for Zimbabwean print media is in Harare, the capital, and then the 40% is generally shared across other cities like Bulawayo and the rests. So you’ll find that if people are not out there because the subscriptions are low and due to restrictions in movement, it means that you can’t sell the hard copy. So they stopped printing.
Paradox of evaporating revenues despite upsurge in news consumption Already traditional revenue structures and streams that sustained legacy media organisations over centuries had started to scramble before Covid-19 (Pickard and Williams 2014; Guyot 2009), as a result of, among other things, the advent and proliferation of digital technologies and social media (Mosco 2009). This study reveals that none of the media establishments escaped the economic downturn. The discussants articulated how Covid-19 expedited the demise of traditional revenue streams. Several of the countries acknowledged sharp drops in advertising, especially in print media as readers migrated to digital platforms—mostly television and radio genres.
The surge in digital consumers was a positive development indicating that consumers still trust the importance of verified information that legacy media provide as opposed to social media. However, the paradox remains that the digital shift did not bring along revenues. This in itself was linked to a deep concern over sustainability:
There is a disequilibrium between the increase in readership online and the increase in revenues online. It doesn’t necessarily mean that when you have huge readership growth in that direction, it means that you are going to have a better chance of survival. So it’s a very new territory, uncharted waters. (Zimbabwean Discussant)
Hence, media houses found themselves with the same huge cost structures, but diminished revenue:
We witnessed a massive rise in digital readers. So, we have much more readers now digitally that read journalism in South Africa than we ever had in print and that can be a good thing. But they were not paying readers. So how do we turn these into paying readers because we still need to pay the bills and we still have our rental, we still have our salaries, we still have technology to pay for, etc. (South African Discussant)
Winners and losers—survival of the fittest? In line with Chakrabarty (2011) and Richter and Gräf 2015) criticism of hegemonic power structures in media regimes that favour the large and strong, this chapter establishes a clear picture of winners and losers from the crisis, confirming Darwinian notions of ‘survival of the fittest’. Among the losers considered were the traditional print media, i.e. newspapers and magazines, which suffered the most from the unsustainability of their economic model, i.e. advertisements and sales. In addition, small community and private media came out as clear losers for the same reasons. The study from South Africa shows similar findings (SANEF 2020). Questions about media diversity, public interest, marginalisation and social justice, especially among large sections of populations (all African Media Barometers), were a matter taken up, among others, by Chakrabarty (2011) and this study. For instance, the SANEF director underscored the following concerns regarding the impact of Covid-19 on minority groups and on journalism practice:
SANEF has seen a considerable reduction in investigative journalism, poor coverage of already marginalized communities, especially those in the rural areas. So, instead of providing access to information to these communities they are further marginalized because media houses cannot frequently send out teams to cover these communities as it involves travel and daily subsistence allowances. Trust in media is also slowly eroding because print runs have been slashed and the number of pages printed daily or weekly, reduced drastically. Moreover, there is a greater dependence on events coverage—this needs to be addressed.
Among the winners were the large media houses and international technology companies. This is mainly because, during the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers turned to digital platforms such as Google and Facebook for news and marketing in a bid to reach the massive online audiences at the expense of local media houses. Media conglomerates moved their print content online and revamped their broadcast sections monetising all their online content and consequently surviving the worst of the economic crisis, as shown below:
If you look at digital advertising, what we’re seeing in South Africa, and I am fortunate enough to work for the largest news publication in South African, which has about 13 to 15 million readers a month. We have managed to turn the ship in terms of digital advertising. So, a few years ago, the bulk of advertising was still going to print, but we now make easily the same or more money than a normal newspaper publication on digital. But, and this is a big BUT, I’m afraid this model will only work for the largest news sites, probably the two or three largest news sites in your country.
There was a sense of hopelessness when addressing the international technology companies eating up large shares of the advertising market. The injustice resulted from these companies circumventing nationally bound legislation and tax regimes placed on local media—in addition, they are tech companies acting as conduits for conventional journalism products (Nielsen 2012; O’Connor 2012; Goggin and Hjorth 2014). Therefore, hegemonic power structures were sustained since market models and globalisation favoured large and international companies over the small local/national ones (Chakrabarty 2011).
New trends in third-revenue stream innovations Political economy predicates suggest the centrality of economics in media viability (Schubert and Klein 2011; Richter and Gräf 2015). Below are ways media houses harnessed third-revenue streams for viability.
Start-ups The stark digital shift meant the process of transitioning from the old models to the new models was given impetus. In Zimbabwe, for instance, there was the mushrooming of digital media start-ups, which:
Have been a positive thing in the sense that it widened the diversity and pluralism in the media. It has also given the media a new way of renewing itself because that’s the direction anyway. So that process has been accelerated which is positive.
Partnerships Partnerships between small publications and large media houses emerged. In South Africa particularly there was emergence of small digital early publications funded by donors and memberships like ama Bhungane. These publications conducted amazing investigative journalism based on poor rural areas and wrote stories where mainstream newsrooms no longer sent journalists nor had bureaus:
We see these organizations having these stories published on the largest websites in exchange for eyeballs (views). So that is a very good relationship emerging in South Africa where the small publications journalism gets published on the larger websites as well.
Government funding Government funding, an option in some of the countries, faced challenges like strings attached, delays in funding, arm-twisting by government, etc. The problem with strings attached was elaborated as follows:
We have seen government stepping in at a time of hardship for the media in exchange for positive coverage. An example involves evidence of state capture of the commission of inquiry, in which a South African intelligence agency paid money to a media house to produce journalism that reflected positive on Ex-president Jacob Zuma and his regime, which is a huge, huge threat to media freedom and credibility in our country.” (South African Discussant)
Relief fund SANEF offered support to journalists struggling with basic necessities. The recipients applauded having strong support structures in the media industry for its survival. Zambia, at the time, was experimenting with a government relief fund—internal mechanisms and impact needed studying. At the time, a research project by SANEF was under way to investigate ways to galvanize funds for and within the different chapters to support journalists, freelancers and contracted journalists who had lost their jobs (SANEF’s director).
Paywalls Subscription services and various forms of paywalls had existed for a while (Chyi 2005). This system of monetising media content expanded during the pandemic to include different approaches. For instance, almost all the major news websites in South Africa activated some kind of paywall, i.e. either a ‘hard paywall’ where one only accessed content after paying or in the case of News 24 accessed a ‘leaky paywall’, where certain content was free and the rest was through paid subscription. The gap resulted from media literacy:
I think it is critically important that we educate our readers, why they have to pay for journalism. For too long we gave away journalism for free on the Internet because everything was free on the Internet, but also globally, that trend is changing very fast. People now pay for music, they pay for movies, they pay for TV shows. So why not pay for journalism? And I think that’s something that we, as colleagues across the continent can do and should strengthened together. (South African Discussant).