Just doing our job to inform, irritate … and depress
AFORMER editor of mine, who I will not name here because he became a government spokesman and is now reaping the consequences of his words, used to say that a newspaper’s job was to “inform, irritate and entertain”.
He argued, and I agree, that after reading the paper, readers must know more than they did, must have engaged (to use that hideous and overused word) critically with the content, and must have enjoyed the experience.
Unless your newspaper’s selection of stories, cartoons and images did all three, you were doing your readers a grave disservice and risked, over time, losing readers to other media.
Unfortunately, newspapers to a very large degree are forced to reflect the societies in which they operate, and, in the current environment, it has become very difficult to be entertaining in any traditional sense of the word.
If our readers were partial to stories about the lighter side of train wrecks or fun things to do with dismembered puppies, we would be in the money. But, assuming that you’re not, it’s hard for us to make your morning paper fun in condi- tions of near-zero good news. Take yesterday’s big stories in Business Day as just one example of just one day. For the purposes of this exercise you could use any paper, except perhaps The New Age, that good-news-loving, state-endorsing publication.
On the front page we ran the fact that the rand was careering towards R10 to the dollar, that growth had stalled and even a top Treasury official had slashed her forecast to 2% growth for the year rather than the more optimistic figures bandied about by her peers at the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
We revealed that rhino poaching in Kruger Park had got so bad that the government was thinking about stringing the fence — taken down to such fanfare more than a decade ago — back up.
And Sibanye Gold, one of the smaller mining companies, had been forced to slash 1,110 people off its books and even the unions were heralding this as a success as thousands of other jobs had been saved. Should conditions remain as challenging (another horrible South Africanism) as they are now, more jobs will undoubtedly be shed.
On top of all this, the annual global competitiveness rankings by the internationally respected IMD business school revealed — you guessed it — that SA had slipped three places to 60th overall and that we were the worst placed of all the Brics countries and that, contrary to the political leadership’s rhetoric, things are not all that rosy in the republic.
The IMD cited “a lot of missed opportunities” in its reasoning, adding “unemployment, corruption, and difficulties in transparency” to the list of problems.
We are one measly notch above Greece, the definitive economic basket case, and are below Spain and Portugal. A glimmer of light was that it has been decided to commission a study into the cost and feasibility of high-speed rail links between SA’s major centres.
But anyone who has studied the roll-out of these large-scale infrastructure projects will know that if you’re already approaching your dotage and want to go on a fast train as a birthday treat, you should probably head to Japan or France rather than wait for the home-grown one to start rolling.
There is no doubt that all the markets — rands, bonds and shares — have been hit hard by this unrelenting torrent of negativity and I know there are some out there who hold that we journalists are treasonous for constantly harping on about what is going wrong. I have heard the arguments that more sunshine journalism, as espoused by newspapers such as The New Age, would have an uplifting effect on sentiment and that we would all benefit from a more sanguine view of the world.
But I argue that, as miseryinducing as it may be, only an unrelenting focus on an unvarnished view of reality will create the conditions for much-needed change. We need to know the truth about what is going on.
How can we complain that there is no budget to build school toilets but free up R2bn to ensure that the president can upgrade his jet?
How can we complain that kids are going hungry but not act when officials plunder, for personal profit, feeding schemes?
We must see, understand and then act (rather than just talk) accordingly.
After all, if meetings were work and platitudes were policy, SA would be winning the war on poverty. They’re not and, unfortunately, neither are we. Twitter: @qwray E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org