This is the Executive Summary of the Media Sustainability & Universal Access to Public Interest Journalists.
This report seeks to contribute to SANEF’s mission of achieving media sustainability and universal access to public interest journalism, and it forms part of SANEF’s response to the Independent Panel Report in the Inquiry into Media Ethics and Credibility, prepared by retired Judge Kathleen Satchwell, Nikiwe Bikitsha, and Rich Mkhondo. In particular, Recommendation D35 calls on SANEF to—
“[s]upport research into the financial viability and sustainability of all forms of news media, examining international approaches to funding independent media, including but not limited to taxation incentives/exemptions, allocation of public funds, the pursuit of royalties, levies on online advertising revenue routed offshore by online platforms, or other such methods.”
This report does not purport to offer the solution to media sustainability in South Africa. It does, however, present a series of policy options to promote media sustainability drawn from local, regional, and international comparative practices and examples for further deliberation and debate. Notably, this report complements a variety of recent and ongoing media sustainability initiatives5 and offers the reader a high-level overview of options that may be tailored for South Africa’s unique media landscape. Specifically, this report presents eight media sustainability strategies and over fifteen direct policy considerations.
• The establishment of a Media Sustainability Fund (MSF): One of the priority media sustainability strategies for SANEF is the possible establishment of an MSF. The mission of the MSF — which may include what is referred to as a local content fund in the Independent Panel Report6 — is to support the development, sustainability, and independence of public interest media organisations, in pursuance of the right to freedom of expression and democratic principles. In fully considering an MSF, this report considers its potential mission, eligibility criteria, sources of funding, and its structure and oversight.
• Promoting access to public interest news websites: Alongside an MSF, substantially reducing data costs and advocating for the zero-rating of public interest news websites and content have been identified as priority measures for SANEF. In considering these sustainability options, data costs, internet access, and possibilities related to zero-rating access to public interest content are considered.
• Fostering competition in the digital economy: In line with international trends, this report notes international developments, particularly in Australia and the United States, relating to fostering competition in the digital economy, including through enhanced engagement with the so-called FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google). In the South Africa context, this report suggests possible areas of engagement with South Africa’s Competition Commission.
• Considering tax relief and other state support schemes: Allied to fostering competition in the digital economy, tax relief and other state support schemes are documented, including possibilities associated with converting license fees to a bespoke tax, the introduction of a new online advertising tax, and various other tax relief proposals for public interest media organisations and donors, including, for example, a proposed amendment to South Africa’s Income Tax Act to allow for tax deductions for businesses, donors, and individuals who subscribe to a community and local media.
• Engaging with different subsidisation, subscriptions, and other income-generating models: With an emphasis on comparative international examples, the benefits of subsidies are discussed, alongside the potential of “access tiering” — the practice of offering memberships and subscription discounts to older persons, students, and social grant recipients — and new business models.
• Assessing the potential of coupon and open-access systems: By way of new sustainability strategies, this report introduces a possible coupon and open access system which facilitates subscriber access to premium content on multiple public interest news websites; and it investigates the openTrust model, which promotes corporate social investment.
• Considering the establishment of public interest wire services: To assist with what Frances Cairncross refers to as the “humdrum task or reporting on the daily activities of public institutions” and to promote community media, the establishment of public interest wire services to assist under-capacitated public interest media organisations and ensure that additional public interest media content is produced and distributed for publication, particularly on matters relating to the exercise of the democratic function and its institutions; and to (2) collect local content from community media organisations and distribute it to larger media houses for a fee is discussed.
• Promoting education, training, and leadership: Lastly, this report reflects on the importance of fellowships to train young journalists, continuing development opportunities for mid-career journalists, and the need for the South African government to fund media information literacy (MIL) initiatives.
The report concludes by noting that despite years of decline in advertising revenues and the devasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, public interest media actors are proving to be resilient, working tirelessly to develop new media sustainability strategies. This research seeks to complement this tide. With concerted and collective action — and the requisite political will — strides can be made in not only sustaining public interest journalism in South Africa but working towards an enabling environment in which it can grow and flourish.
The South Africa National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) is thankful to everyone who has participated in this process.
For initial reviews of the preliminary draft of this report, SANEF is thankful to Izak Minnaar, Kate Skinner, and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.
For interviews based on the preliminary draft of this report, SANEF is thankful to Kate Skinner, Nwabisa Makunga, Professor Franz Kruger, Bilal Randeree, Izak Minnaar, Mary Papayya, Adriaan Basson, Mahlatse Mahlase, and Sbu Ngalwa. For reviews on the further draft of this report, SANEF is thankful to all of the participants who participated in the SANEF Ethics and Sustainability webinar on 5 May 2021, and to Phathiswa Magopeni, Martina Della Togna, Dunisani Ntsanwisi, Professor Franz Kruger, and Kate Skinner for their comments.
Importantly, SANEF is thankful for and acknowledges the recent research by Dr Harry Dugmore1 and Reg Rumney which has contributed significantly to this report. This report was prepared with the assistance of ALT Advisory. ENDS