Baseless criticism by Daily Maverick is just unfair, Newsline

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right, for you’ll be criticised anyway. You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I am still curious about how Sasha Planting, in her article, “Bruising cuts mean more pain ahead for Independent Media staff”, figured that this was a position that staff at Independent Media find themselves in.

She clearly states in the next line that it is the management of the company that has proposed across-the-board salary cuts. Why would the staff be criticised? Branko Brkic’s Daily Maverick has again done the industry a disservice in the form of a factually incorrect article, aiming to denigrate Independent Media’s efforts to save media jobs while the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks economic havoc.

Independent Media and several other media houses have found themselves in a rather precarious position as the Covid-19 pandemic ravages the economy, resulting in management being faced with a dilemma.

It is common knowledge that revenue streams for some media sectors have all but dried up and, with no lifeline in sight, the solution boils down to cutting costs – for survival, not for profit. With all avenues explored, media houses are ultimately faced with choices that no one likes to make – to cut salaries and save jobs, or to cut jobs and maintain the salaries of the remaining staff.

The SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) “Covid-19 Impact on Journalism” report states: “The crisis will dislocate business projections, so downside scenarios need to be re-forecast. Revenue is likely to fall by 30% to 70%.” It said the impact would not be short term, and the expectation then was that it would last three to 18 months. Cutting costs inevitably means cutting staff because it is the biggest cost item.”

Of note is that revenue generation for print media pre-Covid-19 was already at an all-time low. The impact of the lockdown, necessitated by the need to curb the spread of Covid-19, turned out to be the match in the powder barrel. Clearly the industry is under significant pressure and several operations are struggling to cope with the difficult financial environment.

Sanef has repeatedly appealed to the public, corporates, donors and the government to support the media industry and journalism during this critical time. However, the country’s recent gross domestic product (GDP) figures showed this might be a rather tall order. With the apparent lack of support, the industry has suffered casualties with the first and most visible being the magazine industry, according to the Sanef report, with the closure of two magazine publishers, the loss of 97 jobs at one publisher and up to 250 at the other.

The report states: “Away from the limelight, small, independent, hyperlocal print publications were also ravaged. This was in the first phase of the lockdown, as small publishers were unable to access emergency funding, resulting in the loss of an estimated 300 to 400 journalist jobs. Also, workers at three of the so-called ‘Big 4’ print media companies were forced to take salary cuts of up to 45% and temporary lay-offs have been widely implemented.”

Sanef had earlier urged media companies to seek creative ways to cut costs before resorting to newsroom cuts, including salary cuts.

In April, the Mail & Guardian (M&G) stated its income, then, would not adequately cover the cost of producing the M&G, including the payment of salaries. At the start of August, M&G notified employees about possible retrenchments which, if effected, September would serve as the notice month. Associated Media Publishing (AMP) announced the company will be closing shop, permanently, on May 1. AMP chief executive Julia Raphaely shared the news that the company, which was launched 38 years ago, would cease trading and publishing its magazines.

Caxton and CTP Publishers and Printers in May announced it had begun a process of withdrawing from magazine publishing and associated businesses. This affected at least 10 magazines, many of which were household names that had been in circulation for decades.

In July, Media24 announced a number of closures and restructuring in its newspaper and magazine portfolio, with up to 510 positions impacted by the process and 660 positions reduced.

In May, Arena Holdings announced it had implemented salary cuts to keep operations going. Arena Holdings’ Andy Gill said their two main sources of revenue, advertising and circulation, had been hard-hit by the lockdown and would face tough challenges when the market reopened.

Independent Media’s salary cuts are still in place and management has proposed that salaries at senior job levels be permanently reduced by 20%. Salaries for junior job levels, which were cut by 10% to 15%, will remain the same.

Sanef said in July it was keenly aware of the fact that many industries were experiencing tough times and that salary cuts and retrenchments had become an ever-present reality. It then launched a relief fund for journalists who had lost their livelihoods as a result of the Covid-19 national disaster.

“The purpose of the funding is to assist those in dire need with a small donation to purchase necessities, like food and clothing. Only freelance, contract or permanently employed journalists, who have been retrenched or had their contracts cancelled since the implementation of the national lockdown on March 26, 2020, will be eligible to apply,” it said.

Independent Media has opted to keep its journalists actively employed, albeit with reduced salaries, rather than giving them the chop and increasing the burden on the Sanef fund. And, somehow, Business Maverick’s Ms Planting sees Independent Media’s choice as “more pain ahead for Independent Media staff”? Indeed, Independent Media “will be damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t”.

Ms Planting also says, as a matter of fact, that while Independent Media staff “are tightening their belts, Iqbal Survé, the chairman of Independent Media and executive chairman of Sekunjalo (which holds a majority stake in Independent through its subsidiary Sagarmatha Technologies), has allegedly used company funds to pay off his private property investments, most notably a set of luxury apartments in the exclusive Silo development, in Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront district”.

This perception from Ms Planting beggars belief because the very same media house she writes for has repeatedly carried reports about Independent Media being a loss-making entity. And today there is suddenly money for the chairperson to spend on private property investments?

The truth is to the contrary, Sekunjalo Investment Holdings (SIH) recapitalised Independent Media. Independent Media and Sekunjalo executives are on public record confirming this to be the case. SIH is a corporate that opted to keep the media house afloat and save people’s jobs even before Sanef’s call for corporates, donors and government to support the media industry and journalism.,

Various media, including the Daily Maverick, have opted for the model of relying on donor funding. The Sanef report states that donor-funded news media will be unaffected immediately, since donor commitments are long-term. While this may give some comfort to the companies using such models, it is just diabolical to throw shade at competing media houses and fellow journalists, affected by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

* Dlamini is an online editor at Independent Media Business Report