Comparing the New York Times to Naspers is cynical nonsense

A recent comparison of the New York Times with South African media behemoth, Naspers, by Michael Moritz, the chairman of Sequoia Capital, deserves comment. Not only for the cynical and superficial nature of his argument, but also for what it exposes about the general low quality of local journalism.

For example, popular Cape Town-based digital news website, Memeburn, copied the Moritz article (legally, under a Creative Commons licence) from LinkedIn and published it in full without any analysis, background or editorial opinion. Then another popular Cape Town-based website, 2Oceansvibe, cut and pasted a few out-of-context paragraphs from the Memeburn page, dumbing the content down even further. A classic case of churnalism and lazy content aggregation. It seems that local media players have learned a lot from Media24 (a Naspers subsidiary) when it comes to making money off low quality, high volume content. Content that is seldom original, relies heavily on user-generated articles and often flirts precariously with copyright infringement.

Back to Michael Moritz’s sycophantic hagiography of Koos Bekker, the ex-CEO of Naspers, under whose auspices the company grew from a negligible South African print media company into a global investment powerhouse. Here is what he conveniently left out in his opportunistic comparison of a venerable media institution to a South African company with deep apartheid roots and guilty of extremely cynical and monopolistic business practices:

The genesis of Naspers’s success lies in a monopoly pay TV licence awarded to it by the apartheid government in the 1980s. That cash cow has provided it with millions to play investment roulette with. Many of those investments have fallen flat and most of its current share value is derived from its shareholding in China’s Tencent Investment Holdings.

Naspers has a history of getting into bed with dubious partners in countries with repressive regimes, e.g. mail.ru in Russia where it is partner shareholder with Alisher Usmanov, an Uzbekistan-born oligarch who has been accused of various crimes on multiple occasions. Tencent’s board, which includes two Naspers representatives, for its part signed a self-censure agreement with the Chinese government. In signing the agreement, web companies pledge to identify and prevent the transmission of information that Chinese authorities deem objectionable, including information that ‘breaks laws or spreads superstition or obscenity’, or that ‘may jeopardize state security and disrupt social stability’. In China, all micro-blog service providers, including Tencent, must establish an internal censorship team, which takes directions from the government on filtering sensitive posts.

For those with selective amnesia, Amnesty International has repeatedly reported that China has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.

In South Africa  the cash generated by Naspers’s de facto pay TV monopoly has allowed it to become an internet giant through its subsidiary Media24, using high volume, low quality aggregated websites such as News24.com to marginalise independent digital media. Its insidious effect on the South African media landscape was highlighted last year when Moneyweb, a South African online business publication, launched an application in the Gauteng South High Court against Fin24 (part of Media24) for alleged plagiarism, copyright infringement and unfair competition.

A current predatory pricing case against Media24 further illustrates the fate of any independent local media that dares to take on Naspers or its subsidiaries. While mainstream journalists consistently criticize government attacks on media freedom, they ignore the potentially far more deleterious effect of Naspers’s 75% control of the South African media industry. Which means that either most SA journalists are not intellectually fit to be in the job, or more ominously, that there is pervasive dishonesty and biased reporting in the main stream of the profession.

If ever there was an argument for anti-trust legislation to break up a company it is the one for Naspers. It needs to decide if it is an investment vehicle, a media company or an ICT and ecommerce entity. South Africa is in dire need of astute journalists who diligently pursue media diversity in the face of anti-competitive aberrations such as Naspers. There are enough co-opted incompetents in the profession as it is.

Another worrying trend is the gross inaction by NGOs supposedly committed to media diversity. This has resulted in furthering the big media companies’ agenda of corporate window dressing in stead of creating viable local media competition. If you listen real close you can hear the deafening silence from prominent non-profits like Open Society Foundation South Africa and Media Monitoring Africa.

One look at the Naspers board of directors and it is also evident that the company is still very much rooted in the South Africa of pre-1994. Of the 16 directors only three are women and only three are black South Africans. The senior management is almost exclusively white and male, with a thin sprinkling of women and other population groups.

Naspers is not interested in quality journalism or media diversity. Its sole goal is to maximise shareholder profits by any means possible. How on earth its monopolistic behaviour, unethical investments and the low quality aggregated content of its publications can be compared to the award-winning journalism of the New York Times is incomprehensible. Unless of course media excellence has come to be defined by cynical and monopolistic business practices. If that is the case, then participatory democracy and media diversity are both truly screwed.

For a more in-depth analysis of rising media convergence and its dangers read our article, Big Media vs the People.