It is ironic that people are very quick to defend press freedom against government pressures, but that it seems perfectly acceptable for management to hack away at newspapers in the name of cost-cutting, writes Ann Crotty in Business Report.

Ann Crotty writes in Business Report:

For almost as long as the print media have been around, we have been told – or rather, we have repeatedly told all of you – how important vigorous, independent and well-resourced print media are for a democratic society.

We keep banging on about the media's crucial role in civil society. This role, as one commentator described rather loftily, is the holding to account of public and private power. It is an excellent and crucial role – one that we in the media should aspire to play at least occasionally in between the infotainment we serve you.

Indeed, this holding to account is regarded as so sacred that it often features at the top of a list of indicators of "well-governed democracies". You know, the sort of list the World Economic Forum (WEF) is always drawing up? Heaven forbid that any government should encroach on the media's ability to play this role.

So how bizarre is it that while governments are not allowed to even threaten to curb editorial integrity, management and shareholders of media businesses are allowed merrily to hack away at the very muscle and bone that are vital to it?

A government official need only whisper an intention to look at the press and all hell breaks loose, accompanied by indignant protestations about the need to preserve this robust institution.

Then along comes management, which has obviously not read any WEF reports and believes newspapers are just another consumer commodity to be squeezed for short-term profit at any cost, and out come the carving knives. In between the slashing noise, not a word is mentioned about a possible threat to the media's ability to play a useful role in society.

This, of course, reflects the ultimate irony of free market fundamentalism. Management, ostensibly at the behest of shareholders, is entitled to do whatever it deems necessary to enhance short-term profit, seemingly regardless of any potential damage to longer-term viability.

In almost any organisation it is necessary and useful to constantly seek ways to improve efficiencies. But in the 21st century, when "short term" has been reduced to a matter of months or even weeks, the obsession with cost cutting has assumed the destructive tendencies of a drug-enhanced Tour de France cyclist desperate to do well today, at any cost.

Cost cutting at the media is, of course, not just a South African obsession. Across the globe, the oldest and most prestigious newspapers are being pared back for a variety of reasons. Initially it was the realisation that the internet was becoming a more important and vibrant medium for communicating news and opinion, and therefore, inevitably, for advertisements.

Earlier this year, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer declared that in 10 years' time, no newspapers or magazines would be delivered in print form: "Everything will be delivered in electronic form."

The economic slump that has gripped the global economy has added considerable intensity to the cost cutting process.

Although the internet has not made the same inroads in South Africa, it is frequently used to justify cost cutting. Naspers is merging the editorial departments at its four Afrikaans papers; it somehow believes the merging of four voices will strengthen the quality of journalism.

At Business Report publisher Independent News & Media, where cost cutting is largely driven by the cash needs of its Irish parent, the latest whittling away of media capacity is a plan to merge all of the group's subediting operations.

And so the big question for print media across the globe is: will we survive management cuts long enough to be killed by the internet?

* This article first appeared in Business Report on November 26.