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Support for local papers

by Aniela Batschari

In depth

Journalism students in the SNA newsroom

Journalism students in the SNA newsroom

Four big conglomerates dominate South African media. Small independent organisations provide information to disadvantaged communities, but they lack resources and qualified staff. In 2006, the Eastern Cape Communication Forum (ECCF) was founded in East London to address such challenges. [ By Aniela Batschari ]

Compared to their international counterparts, national media in South Africa perform well. Their reporting is fair and balanced, the press is free. It makes sense to speak of “the fourth estate”, which acts as a guardian of the public interest.

South Africa’s national media, how­ever, are dominated by major corporations and predominantly serve urban and peri-urban markets. Communities in rural and disadvantaged areas not only lack access to these media, their issues and concerns are typically not covered by mainstream media. They thus have to rely on local, community-based media organisations.

Eastern Cape is South Africa’s second largest and poorest province. At first glance, its media landscape looks impressive. The Eastern Cape Communication Forum (ECCF) monitors about 30 independent publications, ­ranging from weekly community newspapers to monthly magazines. However, only few really provide quality journalism. The same is true of community radios. Of the 18 licensed community radio stations, only a handful provide quality content in Eastern Cape.

All over the world, “quality” journalism has several dimensions:
– facts need to be well-researched,
– sources must be indicated,
– controversial issues have to be covered in a way to convey the different angles of interested parties,
– content has to be easily accessible and understood and
– papers and programmes should be entertaining.

South Africa boasts 12 institutions providing education in journalism and media. UNESCO experts consider four of these potential centres of excellence, and two out of them are located in the Eastern Cape. One is Walter Sisulu University (WSU). This institution of higher learning focuses on innovative educational, research and community partnership programmes that respond to local, regional and national needs. Part of WSU’s mission is to make development happen.

The majority of the graduates from the WSU Department of Media Studies pursue their careers in mainstream media and government service. In most cases, they only consider community media stepping stones. Indeed, mainstream media have repeatedly poached staff from community media.

Community media typically rely on untrained volunteers and some staff who, at most, have attended media-related workshops and short courses. Even the vast majority of people in management positions do not have any university degree in journalism. While community radios often have up to 30 staff members, community papers mostly make do with small teams of two to five persons, who are in charge of all tasks including content, marketing, distribution, sales, design and layout. Since advertising and sales ensure economic survival, these are often the editor’s priorities.

In very general terms, community media lack resources. Some do not even have adequate office furniture or electronic equipment. Transportation is almost always a major challenge, limiting the scope for doing research and networking in civil society.

The ECCF was founded in East London in 2006 to address communication challenges in the province. It is a not-for-profit organisation with the mandate to boost the capacities of independent media. The Forum cooperates with the WSU media department and is supported by the German Development Service (DED). The idea is to bridge the gap between academic theory and grassroots reality.

In its first years, the ECCF became convinced that the lack of professionalism is the greatest handicap of community media. In the absence of appropriate journalism courses in the province and in view of the fact that many local media outlets send volunteers and staffers to training facilities elsewhere in South Africa, the ECCF embarked on an extensive and innovative initiative in 2009. It began to offer on-site training to a selection of small community newspapers. For instance, seven papers were given hands-on support in terms of graphic design and layout.

It takes a holistic approach to boost the capacities of small media organisations. Community papers and radios, after all, can hardly afford a division of labour, allowing their staff to specialise in specific areas. Therefore, everyone needs to have an understanding of everything.

An interesting programme to promote small independent media outlets is the Student News Agency (SNA). It was started in 2008 with the goal of serving small, understaffed newsrooms on the one hand and exposing journalism students at WSU (Walter Sisulu University) to realistic practical experience, on the other hand.

Last year, 23 students participated in the SNA. They wrote 45 articles of which 34 were circulated to community papers. On average, the articles were published by two to three different papers. Involvement in the SNA is voluntary, but many students take advantage of this opportunity to improve their investigating and writing skills.

The WSU students write articles on vari­ous topics. SNA contributors are mentored by lecturers. Topics vary from climate change to profiling local artists and from child abuse to the lack of proper housing. There are weekly editorial meetings to discuss topics and story ideas. Students are continuously reminded to keep the articles relevant for a variety of community papers. Articles need to be timeless and must appeal to readers in rural as well as urban settings.

Students are also encouraged to support their stories with photographs. However, WSU does not have enough cameras for all students. Therefore, students started a photo archive this year. WSU provides office space, computers and a telephone line for the SNA.

The ECCF circulates the articles and photographs via e-mail and free of charge to independent publications in the states. During terms, the ECCF circulates one or two stories per week.

The feedback from the community papers is quite positive. “The WSU-SNA articles are helping us a lot,” says Wandile Fana, the owner and publisher of Skawara News in Cofimvaba, a small town in rural Eastern Cape. “The students write about topics that are relevant.”

The ECCF monitors the newspapers, tracking articles written by the students and collecting copies. The students thus build up a portfolio of work samples that helps them to find jobs and start their career in journalism.

Seeing one’s work published, moreover, is immediately rewarding. “I felt very excited and was over the moon when I saw my ­­­ar­t­icle in some of the newspapers,” says Sithembele Sakati, a student who participated in 2009. More importantly, she says that the SNA changed the way she sees journalism: “Before, all we had was just theory, now we are getting practical experience.”

It makes sense, moreover, for the ECCF to monitor community media intensively, both for understanding bottlenecks and to evaluate the impact of training measures. All stakeholders must be willing to act ­flexibly and to take risks – to be relevant, after all, community media not only have to tackle controversial topics, they also must voice the views of under-privileged people.