The announcement that the South African Press Association (SAPA) will cease operations on 31 March has been met with widespread dismay. Speculation on the impact of the decision range from decreased quantity and diversity of articles featuring in national publications, to a fear that smaller regional publications might have to merge or close as a steady news stream from SAPA dries up.
The media industry in South Africa is like a phoenix that has now been forced to end one lifecycle. A long-lived era has been put to flames by digital innovation and changes in news consumption, and has made room for a new cycle to emerge from the ashes.
While the rumoured commercial SAPA replacement might be a solution to the very grave fallout of job losses, potential loss of revenue, and threatened existence of smaller publication, an opportunity exists for this new cycle to mend a few fundamental news bridges.
Newsrooms obtain story ideas from a variety of sources including their own database of trusted contacts, news agencies such as SAPA, online searches and from companies that make use of public relations practices. Public relations (PR) is a function that not many news consumers are aware of. When done professionally and ethically, PR can be a crucial link between newsworthy stories from a company and a journalist producing content for a publication.
Over several decades a rivalry between the newsroom and the PR office has started to take shape. Based on both fact and fiction, criticisms have ranged from income, to ethics, to professionalism and plain old misunderstanding of two industries that at the core have the same goal in mind; informed and empowered consumers.
The closure of SAPA is an immense loss to both those who stand to lose their jobs, and consumers who have become used to a steady stream of news. The new status quo will force journalists and PR professionals to take responsibility for providing news that truly cuts through the clutter of both under resourced newsrooms pressed for volumes and deadlines and publicity hungry clients. With the quantity of news stories in jeopardy, both industries must find a way to work together on shifting the focus back to the age-old principle of quality over quantity.
I'd like to emphasise that this is much easier said than done in the face of news consumption habits that have changed with the digital revolution and rise of social media. The increased amounts of brands that want to tell their stories, with the juxtaposed decreased amount of newspaper and programming minutes available, also pose several challenges for media professionals.
Challenges for the PR industry
PR professionals can’t risk falling back on filling media contact list gaps with submitting stories to SAPA. Building a reliable media contact list from the widely dispersed information available takes time and continued effort. Becoming a trusted source of accurate and valuable information takes even more time, and requires a balancing act between what clients see as important, journalists and editors see as newsworthy, and consumers find valuable.
Breaking through the barriers of age-old negative perceptions can however not be aligned with any deadline, and both outsourced and in-house communications departments that have been relying heavily on the SAPA distribution channel should change ways without any further delay.
Challenges for newsrooms
While some practitioners definitely deserve to be called ‘spin doctors’ there are those that truly have the same fundamental drive as journalists. Advances made and thought leadership shared by organisations and brands that can have a positive impact on the economy of South Africa and the lives of its citizens are available in abundance. Communication is however not usually part of the core skills of these brands, which is why PR professionals play a crucial role in closing the gap between the stories available and a journalist who can share it with a greater audience.
The new era brought by the end of SAPA might see journalists having to work more closely with PR professionals to obtain comment and insight on current affairs.
Whether reluctantly or optimistically, South African media professionals will have to make changes in order to continue to provide consumers with the news SAPA has made easy for many to come by.