South Africa has one of the most diverse and independent media in Africa with a high degree of press freedom. But structural change combined with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are putting intense pressure on the finances of news organisations – at the same time as increasing demand for authoritative and fact-based news.
All large media houses in South Africa have seen a precipitous decline in circulation and revenue for print over the last year, with a concomitant knock-on effect for some of their digital products. As an example, circulations for daily newspapers are down by 40%, on average, for Q2 2020/2021.1 Our Reuters Digital News Report (DNR) survey shows that print as a source of news has dropped to 32%, 5pp down from last year. It can only be a matter of time before we see more print titles closing.
Not all the indicators are discouraging. Several news sites have built sustainable businesses, with the likes of Daily Maverick and Netwerk24 operating effectively on an amalgam of membership/subscription models and advertising, and investigative specialists amaBhungane on donor funding. Relatively new to the subscription model game is News24, the country’s leading news site (73% of people surveyed access it at least weekly) and joint most-trusted brand with the BBC. Launching their paywall in August 2020, they reached 20,000 subscribers in the first two months.
Incredibly, in the midst of a pandemic and a generally disastrous revenue environment for news, the Daily Maverick launched a weekly, high-quality print publication called DM168 in September 2020. Benefiting from an innovative partnership with the loyalty scheme of a major supermarket chain, Daily Maverick claim a circulation of 31,000 copies per week for the seven weeks leading up to end March. Too new to feature in this year’s survey, the newspaper undoubtedly benefits from the Daily Maverick’s growing reach online (up from 11% to 19%) and growth in trust from 60% in 2020 to 66%.
The Daily Maverick was, however, responsible for an egregious editorial blunder when they published a story in February 2021 by renowned investigative journalist Jacques Pauw, in which he apparently concocted details of false arrest and police harassment. The DM and journalist issued apologies, but the incident was seized upon by those eager to discredit reputable media. Trust in media is, however, based on a number of variables. Independent Online, the digital channel for Independent Media, scores just one percentage point (65%) below the Daily Maverick (66%), despite having embarked on a dizzying spiral of publishing misinformation and blatantly invented news.2 Its daily newspaper, The Star, which lost 60% of its circulation Q2 2019–20, is placed just above with a trust score of 68%.
A notable mover in the survey is television channel eNCA, whose trust score is up 4pp to 82%, making it the third most trusted brand in South Africa, a position it also held last year. eNCA’s television reach jumped 18pp to 58%, making it the most accessed offline brand, pushing the SABC into second place at 53%. Its online reach also jumped 15pp. This was despite eNCA being fined by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA for contravening the Broadcast Code by featuring conspiracy theorist and COVID-19 denialist David Icke on one of their talk shows. In March 2021, the SABC cut back over 621 of their 3,000 employees, significantly impacting the public broadcaster’s ability to provide a wide range of services in multiple languages.
As is the global norm, social media platforms have become an important arena for corrupt politicians, criminal businesspeople, and conspiracy theorists in their attempts to discredit news media. For example, there is an active, self-titled Radical Economic Transformation group that attacks journalists reporting on the corruption hearings around former president Jacob Zuma, attempting to paint the reporting as either racist propaganda or by media biased toward a particular government faction.3
The DNR shows that concern about misinformation is higher in Africa (74%) than other regions, with the global average at 58%. In South Africa, there have been calls by politicians for Facebook to be summoned to parliament to discuss steps to fight misinformation on its platforms. Facebook owns three of the top six platforms used by South Africans – with WhatsApp (88%) and Facebook (78%) the most used networks for any purpose and for news. Generally, the economic and trust pressures on media that the big platforms facilitate are mirrored by the political environment, with a range of interest groups invested in problematising the notion of truth, particularly with reference to investigative media.
Deputy CEO, Code for Africa
These data are based on a survey of English-speaking, online news users in South Africa – an important part of a larger, more diverse, media market. Respondents are generally more affluent, younger, have higher levels of formal education, and are more likely to live in cities than the wider South African population. Findings should not be taken to be nationally representative.
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Despite some high-profile editorial errors, and a concerted effort by agents of misinformation to attack media credibility, 2021 saw a growth in trust in news overall (52%, up 4pp from 2020). It’s possible that the surfacing of the debate has educated users in understanding, and placing value on, the editorial integrity of trusted brands.