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Why SA’s Online Journalism is Rubbish

When will online journalism make a real impact in this country? Matthew Buckland says that until online starts to publish more original stories, it’s not going to be taken seriously.

There is a movie on circuit at the moment called Shattered Glass. It’s about a rising star journalist, Stephen Glass, who got caught out for fantastically fabricating his articles for The New Republic, one of the US’s most prestigious magazines. The scandal was unthinkable at the time. Of all titles, not The New Republic – the “inflight magazine of Airforce One”.

The outrage broke when an online journalist, Adam L. Penenburg, who was with Forbes.com at the time, uncovered the trail of bogus stories written by Glass.

Journalists could not ignore the significance of the fact that a relatively small and short-staffed online publication caught out one of the country’s most prestigious print titles. It was unthinkable. Glass was fired after an investigation, The New Republic grovelled and commentators hailed the “coming of age” of US online journalism.

It got me thinking. When will South African online journalism “come of age”? I am not for one second saying it should involve a negative incident like that of The New Republic. What I am saying is that online journalism has yet to make some kind of impact in this country.

Where is the online scoop? When last did a newspaper or broadcast news brand refer to an exclusive by an online publication? Has it ever happened in South Africa? The Sunday Times and Mail & Guardian, as well titles out of the Independent group and Media24, regularly break big stories that send the media industry into a flurry. Has this ever happened in the online world?

South Africa’s online publications simply won’t scoop the big, exclusive stories until they change the way they run their own news operations.

Online news publications in South Africa are too reliant on wire services like Sapa, I-Net, AFP, AP and Reuters. Has anyone noticed that the top five online news publications often publish and lead with identical stories from these wires? So much for original journalism.

Online’s other major content source is traditional print media. This content is derisively known as “shovelware” – it’s simply shovelled from print to the web. Then there is also a small percentage of copy that is originated by the website itself – but it’s too small.

The reasons for this are multiple. The web is a demanding medium. It’s a dynamic and immediate medium. The pressures of keeping the news ticking over and continually publish a high volume of stories, 365 days a year, is incredible. Every minute is your deadline and readers expect a high turnover of news.

It may be that online news staff complements are small because there is no budget for big armies of journalists on specific news beats. Or it may have something to do with the fact that Sapa and the other wires do such a good job on volume; it’s all too easy to rely on them and do little else.

This criticism is mainly limited to generalist online news publications. There are brilliant examples of original and exclusive online journalism being pioneered in the niches such as IT, health and finance. I include excellent niche online publications such as IT Web, Moneyweb, Health24, Wheels24 and media.toolbox in this mould. There are others.

But as far as news goes, South African online journalism is a long way off from “coming of age”. Online is beginning to show better revenue streams as a result of the upturn in online advertising. It means bigger budgets and more staff, so maybe this will be the turning point?

At the moment, to be blunt, online journalism compared to traditional media journalism, is rubbish. And until online starts to publish more original stories, it’s not going to be taken seriously.

Matthew Buckland is publisher of the Mail & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za

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