New research finds that the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt the financial viability of media outlets in southern Africa, with print media being the worst hit.
Launching the report, researcher Reginald Rumney, a journalism professor at Rhodes University in South Africa, said the media in the region had been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This crisis, particularly the lockdowns and restrictions on movements, forced audiences online all to consume broadcast news," Rumney said. "Newspapers and magazines were hard hit. And of course, with a decline in circulation came a huge decline in revenue and retrenchment of staff and a big a restructuring of the newspaper industry across the region. A lot of papers were forced to go online, stop printing completely. Retrenchments were dramatic.”
In Zimbabwe, Alpha Media Holdings, which publishes NewsDay, the Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard, stopped printing paper copies of its newspapers for months, moving all the publications online. All of its staff received a 50% pay cut, while those not directly involved in e-paper production were put on leave.
In South Africa, Associated Media Publishing stopped publishing its magazines, which included Cosmopolitan, House & Leisure and Women on Wheels, while Caxton and CTP Publishers & Printers announced closure of its magazine division.
South Africa’s weekly Mail & Guardian kept publishing but said some advertisers had canceled their campaigns.
Rumney said without a dramatic turnaround or external assistance such as donor funds, most media houses in southern Africa will not get out of the hole that the coronavirus put them in.
Joanah Gadzikwa, a media professor in South Africa, said the pandemic had caused a “redefinition of the media industry” in southern Africa that could have a harmful effect on the region’s societies.
“The death or decline in circulation figures is worrisome," Gadzikwa said. "What do we think should be the way forward? Because news is something that we cannot not have in our societies. A lot is happening in Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, that if issues do not see the light of print like this, we are heading towards another catastrophe. The pandemic has thrown everything upside down, but when things remain in [the] dark, it becomes a huge problem.”
The issue has extra resonance in Zimbabwe, where advocates for the media say authorities have assaulted journalists in the line of duty.
Nigel Nyamutumbu, the head of Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, said, "In terms of Zimbabwe, you find that on one hand, we have a problem of money, we have a problem of resources. We have also the problem of politics, political will, where you can actually talk of the statutory instruments that were used to enforce the lockdowns. Where you also use the weaponization of the COVID-19 to actually clamp down in a calculated manner some civil liberties, including that of free expression, and including that of media freedom, which by extension obviously affects media sustainability.”
Nyamutumbu said one cannot have a thriving media in an unconducive operating environment.
And right now, even with COVID-19 slowly coming under control, southern Africa is not a conducive environment for print journalism.