When we talk about transformation, it is usually a conversation about race. Independent Media is part of that transformation, along with the rest of South Africa – and doing our best to lead the process through campaigns such as #RacismStopsWithMe.
But we have been changing our colours in other ways too.
When I first began working as a journalist at Independent Media, news reporting was a pen and paper kind of job. It was a Microsoft Word, Outlook Express kind of job.
The global news industry was marching on without us. Tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing away without us. We were being left horribly behind, doomed to embody that awful term “legacy media”.
Then last year I was plucked from my seat as a news reporter at the Cape Argus
, and put in charge of the Cape Town unit of Indy’s brand new mobile journalism team, MOJO, – a first for any South African newsroom. The learning curve was dizzyingly steep.
Forget the pen and paper, we were now shooting video on smartphones, broadcasting from the scene of protests using social media platforms, live tweeting, and watching our first Facebook native video go viral. We were training reporters in the print newsrooms to shoot and edit videos on their phones, and to tweet live while out on stories.
We went to New York to attend the International News Media Association’s annual World Congress, where we learnt about digital content trends across the globe, and how Indy was stacking up against the best in the industry.
I went to London to train with the Thomson Foundation, to hone my mobile journalism skills and dig deeper into the art and science of digital storytelling.
At the heart of it all, I found, is social media.
If you still think Facebook and Twitter are platforms for play and not work in the media world, check again. They have become the very centre of all online content flow and conversation. They are the democratisation of the audience – and they have set a new standard for media freedom.
Before widespread access to the internet, media companies were the gatekeepers of news and experience. It was a top-down dissemination, where an editor in a newsroom would decide which stories would be published to thousands of people, and which would never see light of day.
In this context, government restricting media freedom is disastrous for civil society.
The average person had no way of creating or consuming news for themselves – no simple, cheap way of mass publishing own their lives. Enter the worldwide web, social media, smartphones.
These technologies have given millions of people a platform for mass communication that fits in their pockets and budgets.
It is freedom of expression on an unprecedented level: You not only have the legal freedom to express any opinion that is not hate speech, but you also have the platform on which to do it.
You may not be hired as a political analyst, but you have an opinion and a couple thousand Twitter followers.
You may not be trained as a journalist, but you wrote a powerful Facebook post and it has gone viral. Think of the #FeesMustFall movement at the height of its protest action last year.
The movement’s hashtag identity speaks volumes about its participants: they were social media savvy, they were out on the streets, but glued to their phones, they were seamlessly protesting in both the real and the virtual world.
Journalists no longer had exclusive rights to the action. Every protester whose smartphone still had battery life and airtime was telling the story: In tweets, Facebook posts, photographs, videos, WhatsApps to their friends.
And in the thick of the action on Twitter, many activists said mainstream media was not accurately reflecting their struggle.
That traditional media houses were failing to cover the movement. That anyone wanting the real story should look to Twitter rather than newspapers, television or radio.
It was after these calls that the Cape Argus
offered editorship to the students, resulting in the massively successful #FeesMustFall edition.
In a similar way, the Cape Argus
sought out homeless people in Cape Town and gave them a voice in the newspaper as part of the #DignityProject. Whether browsing IOL or picking up an Indy title off a news-stand, readers want the same thing: Compelling stories that reflect their realities. If we don’t offer them that, well, Buzzfeed is only a click away.
This is the challenge that social media lays down to traditional media: Report freely, fairly, accurately and entertainingly, or you will be irrelevant. Here at Indy, we are taking up the challenge, one hashtag at a time.