The closing of New Frame was officially announced current status, as New Frame steps back. This phase of their work has come to an end after four gallant years of fearless journalism. There are many issues to cele-debate about NEW FRAME, which has done an excellent intervention in our body politics, but I want to highlight only three:
– Facebook / algorithms, and
– Publishing in the national languages – this I will not go into, but it is the way to go and the attempt was laudable.
I will start with the last mentioned point first…
– National languages
By all accounts, this is a work in progress and no one can claim to have got this right, which is more difficult to achieve especially with a politics that is anti-systemic. The only indigenous language that has a media presence in print and appears to be flourishing in many platforms is Afrikaans. How this emerged, we know and is the subject for another intervention.
– Donor Funding
The last editorial correctly points out that funding progressive projects is very expensive and that “donor funding can be invaluable, but it cannot be a sustainable solution. It can incubate a moment, or perhaps build a bridge, but it cannot build institutions that will see out generations.”
I think the editorial suffers because of brevity, which has given rise to rumour led debates about individual/s millionaires or billionaires directing this and other critical projects of the progressive social justice movements.
It does not, for instance, call out the failure of public funding bodies like the MDDA to ensure the diversity and vibrancy of our democratic public sphere, wherein print and other media play a great role. If the New Frame is suffering, one can only imagine the untold number of smaller initiatives that are flagging and dying.
Also, why have we not taxed the media houses ? Or maybe we tried and it failed? Why has the media industry failed in contributing the profits so that real diversity could thrive for the sake of our democracy and not only for their bottom line? The MDDA promised to be a game changer, but maybe it has become inactive through capture or just a lack of ideas. Either way, it has failed us.
Going back to the New Frame, it is clear that there is / was a problem with the funding model. For one, it was not transparent and discussed upfront long before problems emerged. We, the readers, are unable to say which positions meet with the funders political objectives and which do not. New Frame and other progressive projects must declare who funds them as we demand of reactionary groups.
The claims on social media, apparently by a former staff member, about the “funder” attempting to dictate editorial direction on China, Russia and so on, demands that these discussions be publicly debated.
Personally, I do not agree with the small elites or cabals that use the energies of the poor and working people to meet their grand political goals whether they coincide with ours or not. It is the aspect of manipulation and the appearance of the public being a mere cog in the big game of the elites, that I most detest.
It is clear that a more open and membership led and owned newspaper / media is called for and this is impossible without the backing of mass democratic organisations like the unions, who will and must ensure its sustenance. It goes without saying that the unions must be democratic and membership controlled and the funds must be voted over for, say, 10 years at a time and reaffirmed at union congresses by members. Yes, I am thinking of even those unions with investment companies, and I know that at present they are, generally speaking, not well run nor transparent and accountable to members. But you get my drift. It will not be easy but it is one direction that would ensure sustainability.
This approach of building alongside mass well-resourced workers controlled trade unions will help to revitalize the unions too! For many years, union educational programmes and media production and dissemination has declined inside the movement. When I worked at SADTU (early 2000s), we produced over 220 000 copies of the Educators Voice as a monthly Newspaper – at least 10 times a year. We distributed the paper to members through their schools using the post-office and independent distribution companies.
What New Frame and others have done and are doing can be done. We must open this discussion as wider LEFT (or is it with small letters: left?) project/s and we do not need billionaires to be the facilitators in discussing how we work better with ourselves. This model can and must include individual readers with clear limits to how much wealth individuals may donate.
– Facebook / algorithms
The second issue is familiar to many of us who are active in various causes that remain marginalised, and it is how Facebook has undermined our work. Activists in the Palestinian social justice movement / anti-Zionist have for years suffered at the hands of FB and others could do well to learn from them. Facebook has been the editor in chief on behalf of a repressive regime!
Even before one reads the editorial or the other offerings, we are told that “New Frame is a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa. We chase quality, not clicks.”
Whilst it was clear what demands it placed on itself, the editorial’s take on the clicks is telling and worth quoting:
“We have published just under 5 000 articles and podcasts. In a little less than four years, more than five million people have read or listened to our work. By August last year there were just under half a million reads and listens to our articles and podcasts in a month. Those numbers plummeted when Facebook changed its algorithm and, like many independent Left publications elsewhere, even our best work often struggled to find the audience that it deserved. Suddenly an article that would previously have been read by tens of thousands of people was now being read by a few hundred people.”
I do not have ready-made answers or alternatives to our current crisis, but learning from others I can say this: a few progressive individuals, organisations and movements have sought to build their own websites to produce their media. This may not be the final answer, but even as a tentative intervention, perhaps it holds the seeds for an alternative media publishing house or many homes. We will continue to use Facebook, Twitter, Tik-Tok, Instagram and other of the “corporations tools” available to drive readers, listeners and viewers to our own platforms. What is clear is that we will not be dependent on them.
I do not know whether these were tried or are tried by others in South Africa, but it is critical and one of the tasks that follows from this is that we have our own database management / members whom we can relate with, without corporate intermediaries.
A good innings comrades.
Hassen Lorgat has worked in trade union movement, civic associations, and anti apartheid sports movement led by the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) as well as NGOs for the past while. He is active with the SA BDS Coalition. He is currently the manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Bench Marks Foundation and writes here in his personal capacity.