Words are cheap

Going from a Chartered Accountant to a writer is like free-falling down a couple of income brackets only to land in the valley of true desolation.  But T.O. Molefe, South African journalist and author, made the jump. At the bottom of this valley he found that the phrase ‘words are cheap’ has a whole new meaning.

According to Molefe, the media’s major sell out to corporations in the past 30 years has led to shrinking editorials, underpaid writers, and most importantly – C-grade journalism. Molefe spoke to the Rhodes University third year writing and editing students on Tuesday about his new project which challenges this commercialization.

“We want to disrupt the kind of media model that isn’t helping anyone – least of all writers, editors and photographers.”

This new project that him and other writers are starting is called The Crux, a digital journal of commentary and analysis. It is a co-operative, which means that every contributor – be it a writer, photographer or editor – has a share in the operation.

“We want to disrupt the kind of media model that isn’t helping anyone – least of all writers, editors and photographers,” he said.

In society today, good writing is grossly undervalued. “People think, ‘But everybody writes, there can’t be any art or craft in it’,” said Molefe. This leads to writers being underpaid by media companies.

T.O. Molefe talks to Rhodes University third year writing and editing students on Tuesday about media commercialization

The mainstream media’s current goal of profit also means that quality journalism is sacrificed.

Molefe wrote for a number of publications, including the New York Times, the Daily Maverick, City Press and Africa is Country. He described how when writing for commercial publications, he was under a lot of pressure to maintain a readership.

He started to judge his work – not by its truth value or its substance – but by the number of “clicks” and online traffic his work received.

Molefe writes predominantly on the topics of race, class and gender. These are sensitive topics, but, according to Molefe, they received more attention when they had a hard hitting tone. [And by hard-hitting I mean the kind of tone that makes you stop scrolling, gasp internally and then has you typing away in the comment section faster than we swap finance ministers.]

Media organisations also cut editorial teams to reduce costs and there is pressure to be timely.

“[This all] leads to poor quality writing and poor quality thinking,” Molefe said. “This wasn’t necessarily the kind of journey I wanted to be on as a writer. So I started something new.”

The Crux seems like an admirable idea in an age where everything seems to run according to capitalist logic. A logic in which profit equals value, and everything else – like good journalism, truth, and critical thinking – are superfluous.

We need to pry the written word from the clamps of commercial media if good journalism is to survive. And if the profit crazy capitalist industry is a colossal mountain, perhaps the only way to challenge it is through slowly replacing its foundation – one grassroots initiative such as The Crux at a time.


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