New Frame one year on

The social justice media project that is New Frame turns one today. It has come a long way from its launch, but is looking forward to the long and challenging way to go.

New Frame was launched in our news editor’s kitchen – because she had the best wifi and commendable taste in music – a year ago today. Our website had been built, at no cost, by members of a radical software workers’ union in Hyderabad. Our collective had been brought together with a shared commitment to reason, evidence and the integrity of public engagement as fundamental to any serious aspiration for justice.

For months we had rushed, with lots of often frustratingly indistinct WhatsApp calls between Johannesburg and Hyderabad, to launch the publication on the sixth anniversary of the Marikana massacre. We named the publication for another, more hopeful, moment of rupture: the strikes in Durban in 1973, including at the Frame factory, which marked a new moment in popular organisation and began a long urban insurrection, a political sequence that some say continues into the present.

We made it clear, from the outset, that in our view the Marikana massacre “marked the end of any credible claim to innocence about the character of the post-apartheid order, and its ruling class”. We made it equally clear that, in our view, any plausible attempt to reach towards an adequate understanding of the conjuncture required an attempt to reach towards “new frames, new ways of seeing and making meaning”.

Sharing the Earth

We were interested in that process, always uncertain, of reaching towards new ways of understanding the world, not because of any investment in novelty for its own sake, but because the world as it is becomes less viable with every passing day. We have a choice before us. Do we rush, like lemmings pouring over the cliffs, into a catastrophe of ever more buffoonish political leaders marshalling Twitter armies into ever more frenzied attacks on reason and decency as the planet burns, the walls get higher and the mob, the lone shooter and the police turn on the same scapegoats? Or do we slow down, take full measure of the crisis that confronts us, organise to create more democratic counter-publics and exercise more democratic forms of counter-power, and start to find viable ways to share the Earth?

We had lived through the last years of Jacob Zuma’s kleptocratic presidency, under which working class and impoverished people were subject to severe and at times fatal repression when they tried to organise independently of the ruling party. Like everyone else, we had also witnessed the deliberate attempts to mobilise dishonesty to compromise the integrity of the public sphere, a project that reached its nadir with the Bell Pottinger scandal.

We had seen similar processes under way in India, the United Kingdom and the United States, and would soon see another political catastrophe unfold in Brazil as Jair Bolsonaro ascended to the presidency, in part as a result of fabrication circulated via WhatsApp.

It was clear that as the printing press gave way to social media, and the racism that had always festered at the heart of the liberal project started to break it in London and Washington, that new forms of right-wing authoritarianism were seizing the advantage on the new terrain. We were acutely aware that in South Africa the left-wing attempt to “lie to power” had left nothing but poison in its wake.

Chasing quality

Under these circumstances we promised ourselves, and that audience that we did not yet have but hoped to build, that we would not seek to ride the crashing waves of social media in a self-destructive hunt for clicks, or to be first with the news. Our commitment to ourselves, and to the audience that we hoped to win, was that we would “chase quality, not clicks”.

This meant proceeding slowly, and carefully. It meant that there would often be multiple rewrites of a story, and up to six pairs of eyes on every story before publication. It also meant that we would not use writers, photographers, editors or experts whose integrity as protagonists in the public sphere was compromised.

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For months the project was largely continued from coffee shops. But the community of people wanting to work with us grew rapidly, and we built a small but committed and significant audience.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been more than half a million occasions on which someone has decided to dedicate their time to reading one of our stories. We’re coming close to a regular audience of 100 000 readers a month. Our readership is growing at a rapid clip from month to month. We don’t know where it will settle, but we do now know that there are enough people interested in the kind of journalism we aspire to produce to make our project worthwhile and sustainable.

Of course, there’s much that we haven’t done and that we still aspire to do. We haven’t, for instance, given the kind of attention to the environment that we would have liked. There’s much more to say about labour, organised or not. We haven’t come close to giving the crisis of mass, systemic unemployment anything like the serious attention it urgently requires. The list of critical issues we have not covered in sufficient depth and detail, or even at all, is long.

Thinking together, working together

But we’ve built time for collective reflection into our schedule. This includes a weekly seminar. We aim, through ongoing collective introspection and discussion, to continue to expand what we do, and to do what we do better. And as we build a bigger community of colleagues, partners and associates, it will become possible for us to do more.

The global situation is now plainly worse than when we launched New Frame a year ago. The same is true of the situation at home. A year ago, liberal opinion at home was overwhelmingly enthused by Cyril Ramaphosa’s “new dawn”. Our opening editorial insisted that Ramaphosa’s “politics offers no credible emancipatory vision” and that “We inhabit what Frantz Fanon called a ‘non-viable society, a society to be replaced’.” At the time that may have struck many readers as overly pessimistic. 

Now that political pessimism is more or less ubiquitous and it is evident that the economy is sinking deeper into the mire, and ever more people are locked into impoverishment, our insistence on the need for genuinely emancipatory alternatives, in South Africa and globally, may make more sense to more people. Time will tell.

The road ahead

Today we publish our first video. We’re also working on getting ready to start regular podcasts. But while New Frame continues to grow into new areas of work, our fundamental commitment remains unchanged: “To strive to do justice to the detail, texture, dynamism and complexity of life in South Africa.”

The time will come when we will have to ask our readers to support the kind of journalism that they value. When that time comes, we aim to have established sufficient trust for that request to be received as eminently sensible. But, today, we thank everyone who has contributed to this project, and to our readers who have entrusted us with their time and discernment. 

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