It seems like everywhere one turns these days, one is confronted by some or other criticism or outright attack on “the media”. In many cases the critique displays an appalling ignorance of who and what “the media” really is. As a professional journalist and editor, this ignorance offends me and this post is my attempt to do something about that ignorance. Feel free to tell everybody you know about it – particularly those who are in the habit of criticising “the media”.

There is a wonderful product started by a friend of mine many years ago called The Media List. It began as a book and then a series of books and is now available via the internet too. What it is is a complete listing of all the newspapers, magazines, radio shows, television shows and online media resources in the country. It is used mostly in the public relations industry because it provides the names, telephone numbers and email addresses of section editors and key journalists who work at each publication – along with lots of other useful info.

The media

But I digress, the reason I mention The Media List is because it allows me to quantify “the media”. For example, I have a three Media List books from about five years ago that list: daily & Sunday newspapers (including news services); consumer magazines; and trade & technical magazines. I haven’t counted the number of publications in them – the books I have are in an electronic document format – but I can tell you that they are 43, 65 and 64 pages long, respectively. Think about that for a second; there is probably about four publications per page on average, which by extrapolation means 172, 260 and 256 publications. That’s well over 600 newspapers and magazines.

Now, I have lately been hearing (and seeing on Twitter as well as in newspapers, in magazines and online) lots of criticism of “the media”. Sometimes that’s qualified by the word “mainstream”. Let’s look at that: mainstream covers all daily & Sunday newspapers as well as those magazines targeting a wide consumer audience. So, according to my five-year old numbers, that means more than 400 publications.

Typically, this is the group of publication people should be referring to when they say “the media”. In reality, however, they may have seen one negative article in one newspaper or magazine and yet “the media” is publishing negative reports, feeding the myth that “the media” is one amorphous mass.

This is nothing short of unadulterated cod’s wallop. Each of the 400+ mainstream publications has at the very least one editor and several journalists and the bigger ones have an editorial staff that comprises as many as 20, 30 or even 50 journalists and section editors. These are all fiercely independent and mostly principled people who represent a wide range of views, backgrounds and ideas.

One publication

I’ve also noticed that many of the comments about “the media” reflect a total ignorance about how the news gathering and production processes work. So, I’m going to explain it by using a hypothetical monthly magazine as an example.

The thing to understand about most magazines in the retail space is that they are funded by advertising. Any cover price is usually just an attempt by the publisher to recoup some of the printing and distribution costs. So, that being the case, the size of our hypothetical magazine is governed by the number of pages the advertising sales team has sold for it. Usually, we make an estimate based on the size of the previous issue and a conversation with the sales manager. In the case of our hypothetical magazine, we’re going to settle on an initial estimate of 64 pages.

Now magazines in this country usually run on a ratio of 60:40, editorial:advertising. In real terms, this means that our 64-page magazine will have about 38 editorial pages. I say “about” because I have yet to come across a publication that will refuse a last-minute advert unless the magazine has already gone to print. But usually, the 60:40 is a good approximation. This calculation is sometimes skewed a little by the covers: the front cover is typically classified as editorial while the inside front, inside back and outside back covers are all considered advertising space.

Next, we have to decide what editorial stories we are going to cover in the next issue. Most magazines have a broad plan based on the readership profile that guides the editor and journalists. This often only needs to be updated from issue to issue to cover current news events. Story ideas are then debated, articles commissioned and everybody gets to work. In a magazine, most articles take about two weeks to research and write. They are then delivered to the editor for vetting and submission to the production process.

Production process

Once the editor has vetted the articles for quality and to ensure that they cover their subjects in a manner consistent with the mission of the magazine, he will push them into sub-editing. A sub-editor, for those who don’t know, is a language specialist. He or she, is tasked with making sure that all articles are grammatically correct and conform to the magazine’s style guide for written language. This is often also where headlines created and pullquotes (sentences used to break up the text) identified.

Meanwhile, the art editor has been scouring image libraries for appropriate artwork to illustrate each article in the finished magazine. Once the articles are back from subbing, which usually takes a week for the whole magazine, they are bundled with the requisite artwork and sent to the layout artist(s) to be placed on editorial pages. Again, this process often takes about two weeks for a whole magazine.

Next is proofing. In the old days, editors would proof pages on physical printouts but these days it’s more common to use lowres PDFs. At this stage captions are inserted and visual problems are ironed out. Finally, about a week later, the magazine goes off to print, which again can take up to two weeks. If you have been paying attention, that has been some eight weeks of production for a monthly magazine. By necessity, one issue always overlaps the next one.

Now, change the measure from pages to column centimetres and cram that whole process into seven days for a weekly paper or 24 hours for a daily. If, at this point, you’re wondering why the process is so lengthy and involved, I’d like to remind you of a little comment attributed to that famous writer and journalist, Ernest Hemingway: “The first draft of everything is shit.”

Not surprisingly, he was right, which is why most journalists write and rewrite several times over until they are happy with the article. Then it goes through the process outlined above so as to catch the typos, spelling and grammatical errors and to make it stylistically consistent with the rest of the magazine.

Criticism

There is a lot of criticism these days, some of it warranted and some not. During a discussion the other day with some people I follow on Twitter, many of them surfaced. In no particular order, I deal with them here.

The discussion I referred to earlier all began when @JoziGoddess tweeted: “SA media is in the business of repeating sound bites; not reporting news.” What offended me most about this comment was the generalisation. What media? Radio? Television? Magazines? Web sites? Newspapers? And which ones?

If one looks at television and radio, there’s the ultimate sound bite mediums. There time is literally money so news is short, sharp and to the point. Occasionally, there’ll be a magazine show or discussion forum in which a topic is dissected but these invariably run out of time. Similarly in print: you only have as much editorial space as advertisers fund.

But when I raised this, @Mabine_Seabe told me that he didn’t want to hear about space. “Journalists and Editors, if well qualified should be able to report on both good and bad,” he added. Well, sorry for you Mabine but space is an issue whether you like it or not. There is only so much and there is a truism cited frequently in the publishing that “good news doesn’t sell newspapers”. And in the newspaper (or magazine) business, circulation is everything. The higher the circulation, the more advertisers will pay to advertise. Consequently, the balance will always be skewed towards “bad” or negative news. That’s a simple economic reality.

@Mabine_Seabe also noted that “Newspapers are selling news, not opinions. If journos want to write opinion pieces, they should look into a career change.”

In principle, he’s wrong; but in practice, sadly, he may have a point. Newspapers have always covered news and provided analysis of that news (by respected journalists) as well as opinion in the form of columns. In most respected publications this is all clearly marked. However, in other less respected publications, the line has begun to blur.

Still, I don’t believe that this is necessarily a deliberate ploy. Far from it. I believe that it is the inevitable result of hard financial times during which clueless administrators replace experienced senior journalists and editors with younger, inexperienced and less expensive, journalists and editors. The inevitable result is a decline in editorial standards. Having said that, South Africa still has many well-respected publications who continue to deserve that respect – whether or not what they publish pleases the government and other critics. Names that spring immediately to mind are: Business Day, City Press, Mail & Guardian, The Daily Maverick, to name but four.

I think it was @TOMolefe brought up the subject of how Julius Malema and Jimmy Manyi seem to dominate the headlines these days. Whoever it was intimated that “the media” has a love affair with these two gentlemen. Nothing could be further from the truth.

When I was being taught to write, my lecturer said something that has stayed with me for the past almost twenty years: “News isn’t news unless it hurts somebody.” Since both gentlemen have a habit of speaking out on contentious issues that have potential to hurt somebody, this is why Mr Malema and Mr Manyi are constantly in the headlines.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that there is no single entity called the media. It is an industry made up of hundreds – maybe thousands of publications from newspapers and magazines to web sites and blogs to radio shows and television programmes.

So, the next time somebody criticises “the media”, ask him (or her) to be more specific: which newspaper or magazine or web sites or blogs or radio station or television programme, and which editor or journalist or presenter he (or she) is talking about? And what, specifically, did they write or say?

If they can’t answer intelligently then the chances are they know less than you do about how “the media” works.

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