When does a newspaper cross the line from selling space to selling its soul? This is a question raised by MTN’s recent Mahala Thursdays campaign which was splashed across all media – including newspaper front pages and headlines and other elements normally protected as sacrosanct editorial space.
Brendan Seery of the Saturday Star argued that his paper – which had huge MTN strips above and below their masthead and in an awkward L-shape along the bottom of the page – managed to keep editorial separate from advertising. The Citizen, he said, crossed the line in selling “every single piece of editorial furniture, from the headlines on some stories to the colour wash boxes on the main editorial and letter pages, as well as strips across the top of every page”.
But both newspapers looked pretty garish, if you ask me. It is hard to imagine any editor looking at those front pages and feeling a surge of professional pride for what they had produced. The initial impression was that both had sold their souls for 30 pieces of silver (or 300 more likely), and the different ways they handled it was a technical one that would have evaded most readers. The Citizen might have clearly crossed the line, but The Star smudged it.
Only a few years ago, no self-respecting newspaper would have been such a cheap date. The rules were known: there were certain spaces available to advertisers and these fall within firm parameters, and an advert could not mess with editorial space or harm the overall feel of the paper. News on the front page sold the paper, and both editors and advertisers accepted that it would be damaging to both the newspaper and the advertiser to allow advertising to overwhelm it. Editorial had to be seen to be independent of commercial interests.
But those were the days when an individual advertiser needed the newspapers more than they other way around. The power was wielded by newspapers because they were one of very few ways in which advertisers could get to their audiences. So advertisers accepted the rules.
Today advertisers have more choice, and the balance of power has shifted in their favour. All over, we are seeing product placements, and “special projects” and thinly-disguised advertorial which leave the audience uncertain about who is paying for what.
Seery took a swipe at the advertiser: “For your information, MTN … the whole affair made you look cheap.” MTN’s chief marketing officer for SA, Serame Taukobong, told me that MTN had “tasked the newspapers to create breakthrough in how the creative was presented . . . [for] high impact in the shortest time frame.
“We received positive responses from the media players and were encouraged with the recommended new and ‘out of the box’ approaches.”
Asked if he had any qualms, he said: “Certainly not … Media has the right to decline any proposals that infringe on their brand.”
He is right: it is the job of editors to draw and hold the line, and the job of newspaper managers to convince advertisers that it is in everyone’s interest to respect the need to produce a good-looking and credible newspaper.
Seery was right that editorial and advertising can live in harmony – but only when it is based on mutual respect for each other and a clear set of rules and practices. These may shift and change over time, but it would be a disaster if they were just thrown out of the window.
No doubt MTN was holding out a fat cheque book and the temptation was strong, particularly after a tough period of low advertising revenues. But both these newspapers are owned by large and powerful companies and The Star at least is massively profitable. Their survival was not at stake.
One of the key criticisms of our commercial media at the moment is that they are motivated by short-term profit, and serve mammon rather than the public interest. It does not help when MTN appears to own the news.
We all know that newspapers face an uncertain future because of the efficiency and impact of digital media. Those likely to survive are those who are thinking long term about proving their worth and value, protecting their credibility and adapting to the technological challenges. This requires flexibility and certainly does not mean that one must stick with the old rules; but it also means investing in journalists and protecting their space to do what they do best – so that audiences will want and need their work, however it may be delivered.
When I saw these newspapers, I was saddened by the thought that so many of our newspapers are in the hands of short-term thinkers focussed overwhelmingly on this quarter’s profits. And many editors are failing to defend their turf.
It is time for an industry debate about the challenges to independent, quality journalism – not just those from government, but also those from business.
*Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University.