Journalist workforce halved from a decade ago

Publishers are citing tough financial circumstances as the reason for retrenchments, blaming the shift to online consumption of news. Instead of seeking new business models, journalists are being laid off.

Mduduzi Ndzingi, 36, is a father of four. He used to be a senior photographer at two of Tiso Blackstar Group’s publications, the Sowetan and Sunday World. With almost 15 years of experience, dozens of his pictures have landed on the front page.

At the end of June, he found himself without a job when the media and publishing group turned to retrenchments, saying it had been hit hard by the changing landscape in the industry in recent years. In total, 40 journalists were rendered jobless. Some claim this is because they spoke out against various forms of exploitation.

“What we are fighting is exploitation. Why do you have to exploit something that I love doing [simply because you are an employer]? It can’t work like that,” Ndzingi says. “We were asking the employer, ‘Can you meet us halfway by increasing salaries? We’ve come to a stage where we are struggling to survive.’ The employer said no, then people were retrenched. It’s not fair that journalists can’t express themselves.”

Historic march of media workers

The first historic media strike since the country transitioned into democracy was in 2012, when journalists of the longest-standing isiZulu newspaper, Ilanga, demanded a 10% salary increase and a minimum starting salary of R10 000 a month for journalists, excluding performance bonuses. It set a precedent for the Tiso Blackstar march in May when workers demanded a 20% salary increase, better working conditions and compulsory bonuses. 

“We give knowledge to people and we interrogate government. You must understand that journalists have pride. For us to go to the streets to march, it had reached a stage where you realise that I can’t eat breakfast, not because I don’t want to but simply because I don’t have it. We would borrow money in order to get by,” says Ndzingi, reflecting on the journalists’ financial predicament. It is a difficulty shared by thousands of his colleagues across the country, who prefer to hide the fact that they are struggling.

Related article:

“We had to pull to one direction and being a part of the [march was] not easy. There are so many risks, like now we’ve lost our jobs … You get involved but, you know, it’s tough. You’d rather not do it but if not me, who else will?

“The seed has been planted. If mineworkers can strike and everyone is striking, why can’t journalists express themselves? Those that are left there need to know that there’s a fight that needs to be carried out,” says Ndzingi. 

Tiso Blackstar deputy managing director Moshoeshoe Monare told New Frame, “We stand against and are opposed to any form of exploitation … With regard to retrenchments, we provided the rationale to affected staff as required by the [Labour Relations] Act. And the process was facilitated by the CCMA [Commission of Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration]. The CCMA and the courts do not permit any procedurally defective process nor retrenchments of employees without a legitimate business rationale.”

The year 2012 to 2013 saw the highest number of media workers losing their jobs – more than 1 000 retrenchments were recorded, according to Wits University professor Glenda Daniels’ chapter on media retrenchments in State of the Newsroom 2018.

Slew of retrenchments

South Africa’s national news agency, the South African Press Association, laid off 40 staff members when it closed down in 2015. 

Print and online media group Independent Media retrenched some employees that same year and then announced in 2016 that another 70 of its journalists would accept retrenchment packages. Last year, the group announced that it would conduct more rounds of job cuts.

Reports emerged in 2016 that at Times Media Group (now Tiso Blackstar), 65 employees were to be laid off. This brought the group’s number of retrenchments to date to about 100. Certain Times Media Group publications retrenched in 2015 after restructuring their businesses, including the Business Day newspaper, which wanted to cut their staff by almost 50%. 

Television news broadcaster eNCA cut its staff numbers in 2015 and announced further plans to downsize its Cape Town newsroom in 2016. The Mail & Guardian newspaper also retrenched in 2015, reportedly reducing its editorial staff of 60 by 25 members. 

Related article:

In early August this year, the Mail & Guardian again told staff members that owing to challenges created by the migration of news consumers to digital platforms, it intends to implement further retrenchments. The actual number is not known yet as September will be a notice period.

In December 2017, The Times, which used to be a daily tabloid paper for the Sunday Times, published its last edition. 

Last year, three more publications closed down. MultiChoice-owned satellite service DStv did not renew its contract with Gupta-linked television station ANN7 resulting in it shutting down alongside its print newspaper, The New Age. This led to hundreds of job losses. And print and digital news producer Media 24 ended its partnership with American news website HuffPost last year, shutting down its short-lived HuffPost SA site and retrenching the newsroom staff. 

The biggest employer of journalists in the country, the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation, planned to retrench 981 employees in 2018, including journalists. The retrenchments are pending a skills audit at the broadcaster, which has yet to be completed.

Financial woes

Early this year, Ndalo Media, which owns Destiny, Destiny Man and Elle magazines, announced its plan to close down after succumbing to financial losses. This resulted in more than 70 employees being retrenched. 

The financial woes of the media group began late last year. “Some of the staffers, especially the lower-earning staff, such as receptionists and cleaners, literally went without food supplies for a time and were begging for assistance from friends, families and colleagues. It was a heartbreaking and heartless outcome for a company whose tagline was ‘Positively impacting lives’,” says one former employee. 

According to another, also speaking on condition of anonymity, their salaries were late in being paid from October last year. “We were told at the end of December that there were retrenchments coming and things were not looking good, and sales were down. Basically, it was all looking bleak. Eventually, we were told in January that the company was closing and everybody was being retrenched.”

“Yah, we were just retrenched … We were promised settlement packages. All of it did not happen. Nobody got paid any packages. We were supposed to have been paid at the end of February,” the former employee says. “People had to give up their cars, people lost places that they were living at because they couldn’t pay, had to leave provinces and had to find other places of work. We were made promises and none of that was honoured. It was really hard.”

Related article:

They are unsure if they will ever get their packages. “The company is in liquidation and we don’t have hopes that we will actually get what we were promised. We are looking at avenues of possibly suing [Khanyi Dhlomo in her personal capacity, as she owns the media group].”

In the past decade, more than 5 000 people employed in the media industry have lost their jobs. “The retrenchment numbers are very traumatic. I was quite shocked, very sad and unhappy. I couldn’t believe that this is happening,” says Daniels, adding that media retrenchments are a global phenomenon. “The digital disruption has eaten up mainstream media and community media. Advertising has gone to social media.”

Thabang Mothelo, the spokesperson for the Information Communication Technology Union, says it’s not only the volatility of the market that is to blame for the retrenchments. “We are having a group of people that are vulnerable as journalists. They have something that is mightier, which is the pen. Unfortunately, they can’t write about themselves. A lot of journalists have lost their jobs, not because they have done something wrong but simply because their pen has been mightier and challenged those in authority.”

Where to after retrenchment?

Retrenched journalists often end up out in the cold, having to fend for themselves. “The companies did not offer any reskilling or training. They just retrenched them. They are bringing in new journalists who are good with digital skills but are not good with journalistic skills, such as fact-checking, editing and context skills,” Daniels says.

Retrenched journalists generally end up in the gig economy, “doing a mix of journalism and other things” such as public relations. About 42% of Daniels’ 158 research participants said they are doing a mix of journalism, 26% are doing journalism plus freelance work, 16% are no longer in journalism, 11% are still looking for a job and just 5% have retired and are taking a break.

For many journalists, freelancing is not an option as it has become unreliable and pays too little.

Helen Grange, a senior features writer at The Star for 13 years, wrote to Daniels: “As I started freelancing, I signed a robust contract with [Independent Media] to produce six features a month, but it quickly whittled down to barely one or two features a month. My word rate was also reduced in the last contract, from R2.75 per word to R2 per word, which I felt was insulting and frankly, not worth the effort … Much of the decently paid work I do now is blatantly advertising-driven editorial for lifestyle magazines, not journalism at all. I’ve made peace with this, as at the end of the day, one has to put food on the table.”

Lack of unionism

Journalists remain difficult to organise. So much of their time is spent in the field that “little time is accorded for them to relate”, says Mothelo. The profit-led economy has “created a sense of individualism, not communalism we used to have. People don’t find comfort any longer to say your struggle is my struggle … It is a delicate and dichotomous situation to organise.”

According to Daniels, there are a number of reasons why there is a lack of unions among journalists. The South African Union of Journalists shut down more than a decade ago after mismanaging its funds, causing distrust among members. The remaining unions that claim to represent journalists are deemed “weak”. Some unions are politically affiliated whereas journalists prefer to remain politically neutral, making it discomforting for journalists to join. Lastly, Daniels agrees with Mothelo that media companies do not encourage their staff to join unions, saying “it is against company policy”.

Related article:

The former Ndalo Media employee says, “As much as you hear about retrenchments and that media houses are closing down, it’s only when it comes to your door, when you are losing your job, when it’s your organisation retrenching, that’s when you realise how important unions are.”

Ndzingi wishes media bosses were more compassionate and considerate towards their workers. “It’s so sad about what is happening to this country … You can’t afford to upset anyone [in the media space] because no one will hire you … The media space is so small. Either it’s too full, which I doubt, or your name has been tainted and you can’t be hired. This is wrong and this must be the year that [exploitation of media workers] stops.”

*Correction, 19 August 2019: This article incorrectly stated that more than 10 000 people had been retrenched in the past decade, when the workforce had actually gone from 10 000 to 5 000.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.