Covid’s impact on journalism has not been all bad

Covid’s impact on journalism has not been all bad

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the way journalism is done in both consumer and trade titles in South Africa. Covid has affected the way stories are gathered, written and consumed, and also affected subscription and advertising models. Many magazines have been forced to close down, including such iconic titles as Cosmopolitan, DRUM, Men’s Health and True Love. In addition, the SABC cut more than 300 jobs earlier this year, further adding to the jobs bloodbath that took place across the media sector in 2020 and 2021.

In the video below, veteran journalist Jeremy Maggs discusses the pandemic’s impact on the media landscape with Wits Journalism’s Anton Harber:

In his foreword to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2021, Professor Rasmus Nielsen, director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, says, “[T]he Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated many of the long-term trends we have documented over the past decade, especially the move to a more digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment. Developments this year put further pressure on the business models of many traditional media, but have also reminded at least parts of the public of the importance and value of trustworthy news from independent news organisations.

“Our analysis also shows how the role of different platforms is evolving.”

The report adds that the coronavirus pandemic “… has hastened the demise of printed newspapers, further impacting the bottom line for many once proud and independent media companies.”

But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. For the entrepreneurial publisher, the pandemic has brought opportunity to rethink the way things are done – and, in one case at least, led to an increase in employment.

Tony van Niekerk is one such entrepreneur. He owns a publication called Cover magazine, which caters to the insurance community in South Africa and beyond. Even though the team has been working remotely since before Covid, the pandemic forced them to take a good look at the way they do things and come up with new content and business models that work in the new environment. Specifically, the publication became purely digital and started focusing on news in addition to its previous niche in thought leadership content.

Photo: supplied

“From our perspective, our journalism focus was on thought leadership before Covid,” says Tony (pictured). “With digital journalism we can cover news events as well as thought leadership – and the same topic can be covered in different ways to reach different people.

“That’s the beauty of digital for me. It allows variety for the audience, whereas print didn’t really allow that. You had one format and that was it.”

Cover has been available in digital format for the past 12 years, but it was purely a PDF of the magazine posted on the company’s website.

“We still have the digital magazine in a flip-book style, but we also take the magazine content and publish it digitally,” explains Tony. “The reader experience is completely different from paging through a magazine – and that’s to reach that varied readership.

“So now you can download the magazine as a PDF, read it as a flip book, or read it in our web-mag style. The web-mag can be shared and it’s built for mobile.”

The response has been very good.

“Readers are really engaging with the web-mag, for example, where they are staying on the site for five or six minutes at a time. That means people are actually reading and browsing.”

The web-mag also allows for more interactive advertising.

“We don’t just place the ad like we would in a magazine,” says Tony. “We redesign it so that there is a call to action. So we are not only seeing measurable interactivity on our editorial, but on our ads as well.”

Listen to Tony’s views below on the value of print advertising in business-to-business magazines in the Covid era:

“We moved from a per placement rate to a holistic package approach. We offer the client a specific package of exposure with different elements and we work out the value to the client versus the cost to us. We didn’t just try to jam the old equation into the new environment. We reworked the whole thing. It’s a model we believe works for both sides.”

But what have the drawbacks been? Here’s Tony again:

Interestingly, Cover’s staff complement rose during Covid.

“We employed two additional digital people, a designer and a social media process manager, to help drive the burgeoning digital requirements of the business. And we’re looking to hire two more people to help us cope with the additional load.”


Readership went from 32 000 (15 000 print and 17 000 digital) to 29 000 (digital only) when Cover stopped printing a magazine each month.

“These are highly engaged readers with whom advertisers have the ability to interact and monitor responses in a way they couldn’t in print.”

Digital has also expanded Cover magazine’s readership footprint into the rest of Africa.

“Because access is that much easier, we are providing more editorial focus on African countries outside of South Africa,” says Tony. “That has opened up a lot of opportunities for us and we’re going to exploit those in 2022.”



Giulietta Talevi (pictured) is the money editor at Financial Mail. She is responsible for money and investing section of the magazine – company news, markets, personal finance, etc. She also hosts three TV shows a week on Business Day TV, which means she had to come into the studio throughout the pandemic. But she did spend fair amount of time working from home, which wasn’t too disruptive as she has the space at home and a carer for her daughter during the week.

Giulietta says Covid has had a marked impact on the newsroom at Financial Mail and its sister publications, which is often completely empty, or at least very sparsely staffed.

A lone journalist occupies the Business Day/Financial Mail newsroom. Photo courtesy G. Talevi.

“Desktop journalism has taken over,” she says. “Instead of going out and meeting people, you can now make a couple of calls, chat to a few people online and get a story out. And you can do it all from home.”

Giulietta doesn’t believe the pandemic caused this phenomenon, though.

“It was happening anyway. The pandemic might have pushed more people out of journalism, because it became a real slog – just you and your computer – as opposed to going out to press conferences, going out to talk to people, going to visit a mine – going out anywhere! And so people withdrew into themselves. Besides the pressures in the newsroom it’s definitely robbed journalism of the fun and excitement aspect and has caused some people to quit.

“I think the pandemic has made people weary of being with other people, and that’s fundamental to journalism as we know it: Talking to people and going outside of your bubble.”

Giulietta says people are slowly starting to return to the newsroom from working from home.

“But even then, we see them maybe two days out of five. It narrows your view of the world. I think the pandemic has had that impact. I hope that it reverses once the pandemic is over.”

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