Why you should pay for local journalism

Donald Trump. Ace Magashule. A woman in Georgia in the United States. A man who grew up in Paarl in South Africa.

What do these things have in common?

The golden thread that binds them is journalism.

Let’s start with Magashule and the man from Paarl, Pieter-Louis Myburgh. Myburgh is an investigative journalist whose work has led, eventually, to one of the most powerful men in the country sitting in the dock, being asked to cough up R200 000 in bail money (he is of course innocent until proven guilty).

The woman from Georgia is Robin Kemp. As the Washington Post tells it, Kemp lost her job at her town’s local newspaper and then set up a news website, covering local politics. Then she found herself at the centre of the US election, spending 21 hours watching votes being counted:

A record number of absentee ballots helped Biden close the statewide gap with Trump. And it was votes from Clayton County — the heart of the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis’s old district — that pushed Biden into the lead.

Kemp was the only journalist to watch all 21 hours of Clayton County’s marathon count of absentee votes.

And why was she the only journalist there? I will quote at length from the Washington Post story (although it describes a US trend, that trend is alive and well in South Africa):

Since 2004, more than a quarter of the country’s newspapers have disappeared, according to research by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism professor Penny Muse Abernathy. The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated that dire trend. In April and May alone, at least 30 papers closed or merged, dozens went online-only and thousands of journalists were furloughed or laid off.

This die-off has created more communities than ever before with no daily newspaper — known as news deserts — and still more counties haunted by “ghost newspapers,” publications struggling to survive with diminished staff and readership. For example, Kemp’s old newspaper, the Clayton News, founded in 1964, has been hit hard by the pandemic and now publishes mostly articles from state and national wire services.

It is a quote from Kemp herself that goes to the heart of the matter: “That’s what’s always on my mind when I go and show up somewhere: It’s because someone needs to be there.

And it this that people have forgotten: someone needs to be there.

While high-profile cases like the Myburgh/Magashule story might attract attention, and prompt people to pay for a news website like the Daily Maverick or the New York Times, that keeps one prize rose bush going. It is what is happening in the not-so-glamorous vegetable garden that is easy to lose sight of.

Local is lekker

The foundations of journalism have always been local – local court cases, city council decisions, what’s happening at the local high school. Unless you are prepared to sit through municipal meetings yourself, you are going to have to trust someone else to tell you what happened. That person always used to be the municipal reporter on your local newspaper. If the advent of the Internet forced your local newspaper to make its content free, and it is now on the financial ropes, it will close. And with it will go that municipal reporter.

No one will be there when the council decides to rezone your road for business rights. No one will be there when the council decides to close your local library.

No one will be there.

So stop whining about how inconvenient paywalls are, and pay for journalism*. If you can find a way to keep your local newspaper alive, so much the better. If you are still lucky enough to have a local newspaper, and you can afford it, buy it, or subscribe to its digital edition.

Because if no one is watching your local municipality, soon there will be no one watching the likes of Ace Magashule.

Just. Pay. For. Journalism.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

* Do I pay for journalism? Yes. I have a subscription to the Sunday Times – admittedly a national newspaper. I am considering a subscription to a local publication too (in the city I live in, this is a complicated question!).

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