Hot ink and hot air: the demise of a newspaper

Since childhood, I have loved the smell of hot ink. Clutching my father’s hand, I would stagger down the Victorian lane where our regional newspaper’s press chugged like a dragon protecting its lair, and breathe in the silky, hot fumes, dreaming of putting those words from my head onto paper: having them stamped wetly onto newsprint, shortly to dry and immortalise themselves. Sometimes resident pigeons would stalk arrogantly through escaped splashes and their footsteps would mark ownership of lane and building alike: the stamp of an institution that was Proudly Pietermaritzburg.
That newspaper, then the Natal Witness, was part of the town’s identity. Once renowned for being a quality newspaper where only the maddest and best could survive, it fought many struggles over the years. Through centuries it housed some of the best journalists this country has ever seen: it survived wars, the total onslaught, and even, initially, the desertion by its owners in favour of capital. It has for a number of years clung to the remnants of a dignity no longer understood. But now, tired, it is in its death throes, too fatigued even to remonstrate as corporate storm troopers frogmarch remaining perceived recalcitrance out the building, ignominiously dumping journalists in steaming heaps on the pavement.
This is a small story that is part of a much bigger tale, that of the corporatisation of the intellectual. An intellectual is someone who uses his or her mind creatively, who thinks independently, comes up with ideas and may even try and find solutions to public problems. And such people can be deeply problematic in a corporate environment: they don’t listen and they won’t be put in ticky-tacky boxes. Noam Chomsky says the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on – because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions for which they work.
Two such journalists have been marched off the Witness premises so far this year: one for asking how (re)trenchments were justified when the editor was earning R126,000.00 per month, and another for having the audacity to ask for written reasons for his own retrenchment. Perhaps it was a little embarrassing for management to have to go back to that ink, though: the press has always carried the newspaper, and asset stripping is always an uncomfortable function to describe when people are suffering. When Media24 first bought into the newspaper and publishing company, they invested some extra R40 million to subsidise the new press – clearly both part of their strategy to expand their representation into KwaZulu-Natal, and acknowledgement that the ink was far more profitable than that lost ideal, news.
The irony in the situation, of course, is the overwhelming silence surrounding this somewhat major onslaught on printing and media in KZN – with the first frogmarch coinciding with Media24’s application to be able to cover the Oscar Pistorius trial, on the grounds of press freedom, no less. No stories are written. Virtually nothing appears in cyberspace. The only grubbing around happens in the streets of the Independent Group – and that’s among the small people on the ground, not those in the mahogany suites where the carpets are so thick and the walls so impenetrable that the only sound one can hear is the faint rustle of nests being feathered.
What we are left with is yet another newspaper sacrificed on the altar of profit, and massive retrenchments: no librarian, junior reporters dragooned into writing opinion pieces, too few sub-editors (which is undoubtedly why the “Witness Repoter” bylined a story this week), dwindling administrative staff, and yet another family business eventually dissected into its various components and auctioned off.
This isn’t an isolated story, but a global one. This is a world where corporatisation is overwhelming and cash is the bottom line. The problem is that to include intellectuals in any world, you need a system that values truth: a world where the ink is allowed to dry.

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