by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) “Journalism is still one of the most-exciting jobs you could ever have,” says Khadija Patel (@khadijapatel), Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief. “It is a privilege to do this work on any day. But it is very, very difficult work. And the difficulty is compounded by the intense pressure on this industry right now.”
Though the challenges facing the news media in South Africa are manifold, Patel, like many of her peers, identifies monetary concerns as the biggest. She says that the financial peril in which newsrooms are increasingly finding themselves — as advertising spend is diverted — affects everything they do, from the number of reporters that can be deployed to how they work day to day. There’s a definite sense that the future of the news worldwide is in jeopardy, she says, and no single publisher can claim to have a definitive solution. “But there are glimmers of hope,” she adds.
“We have to somehow fight our way out,” Patel says. “We have to negotiate our new reality, which holds fewer and fewer resources.” The battle is an urgent one, something that she worries may not be fully understood by audiences. They may not grasp the real possibility of many newsrooms shutting down in the coming years, she says. “But the danger is quite tangible.”
According to her, news-media practitioners can’t wait for heroes of democracy to swoop in and save them: “It is journalists who will ultimately have to come up with the solution. It is our work; it is what we believe in; and it will ultimately be up to us to secure the future.” She believes that there’s a great readiness to confront the challenges and to work towards finding solutions.
At the M&G, this involves reprioritising journalism. “What we have to do is first of all ensure that our journalism holds up to scrutiny,” she says. Following the ownership changes that came at the end of 2017, the company is focused primarily on producing quality journalism; at the same time, it’s working to increase the publication’s agility, in the business sense of the word. “We are unshackling ourselves from the idea that we have to keep doing things the way we did 10 years ago,” explains Patel. “Because 10 years is gone — and it’s not coming back.”
While many of these shifts may be invisible to the public, a noticeable example (from a design and structure perspective), is recently booting sports off the back page to create space for an arts section. Other efforts include an ongoing search for ways to improve efficiencies within the publication’s production flow, and investment in the company’s digital infrastructure.
When asked about her take on in-house agencies or the adoption of an agency model for news media, Patel expresses reservations. Citing The New York Times as an example, she acknowledges that some publishers have seen success with this approach to future-proofing their media. However, she emphasises the importance of “both sides not interfering with the other” in such situations, and says that there needs to be “some interrogation” into the pursuit of new revenue streams. Provided it doesn’t carry negative implications for journalism, the agency model could be “an important cog in the bigger machine” that news media must build in the coming years, she says. The M&G, however, has no plans to go that route, at this stage.
Despite the challenges facing the industry, Patel remains fervently optimistic. To young people considering a career in journalism, she offers words of encouragement: anyone considering a career in the field should build their knowledge not only in journalism itself but in business, law, history, data science or other subjects that take their interest and will help them to do their job more broadly.
Beyond that, they need to be ready to work in tough circumstances: “The work is difficult, but it will be worthwhile,” she says. “You have to keep pushing, keep knocking at doors, but also keep pursuing your curiosity. That ultimately is what we need from young journalists.”
Patel, who describes herself first and foremost as a journalist and teller of stories, has been known to joke about why anybody would want to enter the profession. “But, actually, why wouldn’t they?” she asks. “It is a great job. It is exciting, and fulfilling, and it certainly helps you to play a role in making the world a better place, I believe.”
Both the challenges and opportunities in SA are immense and, though the future may sometimes be frightening, she is excited, and determined to protect the position of the news media — because, she says, a world without it would be intolerable.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her column, “Press Pass”, is a monthly feature spotlighting media leaders and their responses to the trends and tribulations in the industry.