New laws could help sustain journalism

By Styli Charalambous

Daily Maverick

Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa


Some countries’ constitutions specifically mention freedom of the press and access to information as a constitutional right. Others go even further, acknowledging the media’s unique role in protecting democracy — yet few special concessions exist to help the cause of public interest journalism.

We are left to operate in a challenging environment, often with extreme personal safety risks and little financial support. While the market failure of journalism plays out around us, we are left fighting some of the scariest people and situations with bare-bones resources.

There are only two solutions to market failure: philanthropy and policy interventions. By tweaking some legislation and introducing innovative new laws, we can attract more support from the public and businesses, and help the state recover assets from misconduct and corruption.

By introducing various incentives and tax rebates, we can use legislation to improve the current environment, which is wholly inadequate in supporting public interest journalism. At the same time, we can create a culture change around whistleblowing and investigative journalism, reversing the trend of the last two decades where the financial and personal costs drove people away.  

My home country of South Africa, ravaged by crime and corruption in the last decade, is a perfect example of how we might benefit from these changes. Still, the principles are globally relevant and applicable to any country and tax regime willing to acknowledge the critical role of public interest media.

News media organisations worldwide face a sustainability crisis that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated. Public interest journalism, local news, and investigative reporting are all at risk and have been for over a decade while having to provide a crucial check on power.

Global research reports and local industry efforts have made recommendations that could alleviate the burden of publishing journalism to serve the greater good, and we propose those here that are likely to make the most significant impact on the industry and the country.

Much work has gone into researching the wide range of recommendations that stakeholders should and could implement to alleviate the impact of market failure. Addressing the issue of media sustainability requires a multi-faceted approach.

Reinventing the news industry 

Let’s acknowledge that news organisations must reinvent themselves and rethink how they generate revenue without compromising editorial integrity. We need to evolve to be better practitioners and business operators. And let’s also admit the many, many own goals we have scored along the way.

However, this transformation is exceptionally challenging while managing the rapid decline of revenue prospects and the simultaneous loss of newsroom employees.

To put this in perspective, the South African news media industry ‌lost more than half of its workforce from 2010–2019, according to the Wits Justice Project study. American newspapers faced similar levels of losses, according to Pew Research Centre. How can we even begin to contemplate an industry turnaround in such an environment?

Therefore, we must create a more favourable environment where the media operates through supporting legislation and incentives.

In part two of this article, I outline several measures that would help public service media navigate this crisis and, at the same time, present South Africa as a shining example for even the most progressive nations to follow.

Our submissions fall into the following categories as incentives to encourage:

These incentives could improve the news media industry.
These incentives could improve the news media industry.

Defining public interest media 

In its 2021 report on Media Sustainability and Universal Access to Journalism, the South African National Editors Forum settled on a definition for qualifying media: 

“Public interest journalism refers to journalistic activity that is central to the democratic function and the protection and promotion of the South African Constitution, including investigative journalism, reporting on the daily affairs of public institutions, and local journalism focused on the generation of public interest stories in towns and villages and underserved rural areas.”

It should not matter whether the entity is set up as a non-profit or public/private organisation, but rather if it meets the definition of public interest journalism. In conjunction with Press Council membership in good standing, we propose that this definition be used as the qualifying criteria for the organisations that would qualify for the proposals submitted below. 

Summary of incentives and law changes

These suggestions will require a relatively small short-term investment but with exponential long-term returns for the state.

Alongside big business and the people of South Africa, the state has been a significant beneficiary of the good work of public service journalism. 

We have seen how investigative journalism has contributed to the resignation and recall of leaders of some important institutions, allowing the country to reclaim lost ground from fraud and corruption. In several cases, there were large cash and asset recoveries from investigative news media’s work. 

Some estimates put the cost of corruption at 4% of GDP in the Zuma years — the #GuptaLeaks were instrumental in proving these links that ultimately saw the president resign and helped lay the grounds for the Zondo Commission of Inquiry. 

Tax collection and refunds processed by the South African Revenue Service under Commissioner Tom Moyane were negatively affected and recovered to record levels after his termination, thanks to investigative journalism.

The state has much to gain from supporting and contributing to a healthy public service journalism ecosystem, both directly and indirectly.

About Styli Charalambous

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.