‘I get quite irritated when people say that the news or journalism is dying,’ News24’s Adriaan Basson

2024-04-05. As South Africans gear up for the seventh democratic elections in 30 years on 29 May, Adriaan Basson, editor-in-chief of one of the country’s largest newsrooms, shares his deepest concerns, in our latest EDITOR TO EDITOR interview.

by Lucinda Jordaan | April 5, 2024

Adriaan Basson is a multiple award-winning investigative journalist who has authored four books on corruption and current affairs, including Zuma Exposed (2012) and Blessed by Bosasa (2019).

A newsroom veteran, his career started at Afrikaans daily Beeld in 2003. He tackled investigations at The Mail & Guardian, was a founding member of award-winning investigative unit amaBhungane, and was assistant editor at City Press, before returning to Beeld as editor in 2013. 

Basson was named CNN African Journalist of the Year for news and is a recipient of the Taco Kuiper Award. He was appointed editor-in-chief of News24 in 2016.

South Africa always manages to surprise the world, and grab the headlines – what, lately, has been keeping you up at night?

Elections, and AI. 

There’s always a lot of mixed uncertainty and excitement when it comes to election seasons – but in terms of the industry, I am worried about AI, and the potential destructive impact it can have on journalism; not in how we, as a company or as a newsroom, apply AI – but how the Internet will use AI to attempt to replace or replicate journalism. I think that’s something one has to be incredibly sharp on going forward.

How is this election different, for you, if at all?

South Africa celebrates 30 years of democracy this year, so it’s a good time to reflect on how the media has covered elections in that time. I was at school in 1994, when the old traditional mediums were still very much in play. Now, 30 years later, there’s this whole new world of social media platforms – and newspapers are on their knees.

Digital platforms are now by far the most read platforms, and this, on mobile phones. So the technology and the immediacy of the coverage have completely changed. People can now get immediate access to incredible data that wasn’t available in 1994. And I think it’s good; I think data and information empowers people.

Of course, we have a massive stay-away problem in South Africa. The majority of voters, specifically young people, don’t vote. We as journalists and publications, should probably get better at:  being more creative, partnering with others to try and devise a campaign to get young people to come and vote. It’s a role we haven’t previously had to play but I think with our vast voter turnout problem, it certainly is something we have to look at now.

What is the greatest challenge faced by journalists, and editors, now; are South African journalists at any risk in covering the elections?

For the majority of the country, there is no immediate threat to journalists covering political rallies or manifestos. But KwaZulu-Natal is becoming a problem. We’ve seen inter-party violence; there was an assassination again yesterday, and KwaZulu Natal unfortunately has a troubled past in terms of political violence in the 90s. So I have alerted my editors to ensure reporters are properly equipped with bulletproof vests, safety helmets, and security equipment, especially for those reporters who go into volatile areas. 

See also: Killing Councillors, a News24 Special Project on political assassinations 

How do you envisage the future of journalism, and News24, in these shifting times?

I believe that technology doesn’t change the core principles of what good journalism is. We will remain fearless, independent and we should continue to inform, educate and entertain.

In fact:

I get quite irritated when people say that the news or journalism is dying because newspapers are dying. It’s not. Journalism isn’t linked to one format. Journalism is much stronger.’

I don’t know what the platforms of the future will be. I don’t know if News24 will still be a website or if it will be a hologram projected from your watch to a screen… We don’t fret about that too much.

I just adapt – we must just adapt to the format, but stay true to your principles: have probing journalism; ask critical questions; continue teaching young journalists how to ask questions and how to properly interrogate those in power. For me, those are the critical things – and I think that needs to be our focus – to do even more to improve our journalism, to make sure that what we deliver is of even higher quality.

We’ve invested a lot in upping the quality of our journalism over the past five years, and will continue doing that. I think in terms of platforms, we’ll probably still be digital, and the majority will be on mobile phones; most of our audience already sits there. 

Newsrooms have had to adapt to a lot, including the generation gap. How has your newsroom managed to embrace that, if at all?

We have quite a young newsroom; the majority are in their 20s and 30s – and we also have, in fact, just appointed Praga Govender who’s a very senior, very experienced journalist, as I think we actually need that mix; I think we are actually very good at directing young people.

‘What’s great about this younger generation is that they understand the digital platforms, how people want to consume news, and also in terms of news you can use, that people are interested in – and how maybe the old way of thinking about news can change.’

That’s been very interesting for me, that young people come into the newsroom very sharp, with very good ideas and an interesting take on life.

We also have an internship programme – actually, at least three – but interns are split between our two newsrooms in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and they move between the different departments. At the end of the year, we appoint someone.

‘I feel that we have amazing, talented young journalists coming through – not only at News24, but elsewhere as well. But our industry is in crisis in terms of the funding model.’

Let’s talk about that; last year was particularly challenging for SA media, according to Reuters, and this was highlighted in the Competition Commission inquiry into digital platforms, for which you also entered submissions. 

It’s quite shocking to hear how fragile the news economy in South Africa is, what lapse of money that the digital platforms are taking from advertising. If we can’t fix the business model, I’m afraid there’s gonna be less and less journalists and newsrooms.

We’ve built a subscription model on top of our free news model, which has been quite successful but obviously, it’s not something everyone can afford. But we were forced to do it. There was no other way for us to continue surviving and maintaining a sustainable business. So the journalism industry countrywide is not in a great space.

On the upside, people increasingly understand why they should pay for news, and they are paying for news; we now have about 108,000 subscribers, which is the largest in the country.

See also: Google, not government, has brought SA media ‘to its knees’ – Media24 CEO

These are serious challenges – what then, gets you out of bed every morning?

Just enormous gratitude for being able to do this wonderful job and for being able to tell the story of South Africa on this platform, with the size we are – and making it an amazing read. It’s a privilege, every day. It keeps me going, knowing that what we do is impactful and can change the world for people. 

Watch: Adriaan Basson features in Day 2 of Media And Digital Platform Marketing Inquiry, which focused on news media submissions.


Share via
Copy link