With scientists having made a breakthrough in the invention of Covid-19, discussions may be lost on a key player in this fight, the media.
Much as the fourth estate has been on the frontline of this war, through brave reporting and education, discussions have been muted on what awaits the industry post Covid-19, generally in East Africa and particularly in Kenya.
This is a discussion that should have been amplified especially now when the pandemic has ravaged an industry buttressed by shaky revenue streams.
Ever since the turn of the century, legacy media has been living on borrowed time, what with revenue streams that keep shrinking each calendar year, largely due to the emergence of digital media and the robust growth of social media.
The two have eaten into the commercial space long dominated by the former, so much so that advertisers, mainly blue-chip companies, have been forced to rethink their commercial engagements with legacy media, now that there are ‘other cheaper options’ with more commercial value.
A situation that was already dicey has been worsened by Covid-19.
With the shifting trend it came as no surprise when by mid-April 2020, a month after Kenya reported her first coronavirus case, all the mainstream media houses began instituting pay cuts for their staff(most of them still in force to date).
Worst affected was Mediamax Network Limited, a company associated with Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, where staffers were forced to take a 50% pay cut, leading to a legal battle as the company stuck to its plan.
By the time the dust settled, 90 percent of the staff working for the company’s TV station K24 had been sent home. The livelihoods of many young and mid-career journalists were thrown into jeopardy.
More than five months later it’s still unclear if these media houses will reverse the pay cuts.
But of more importance is the question of what the future portends for the media, in Kenya post Covid-19.
To put matters into perspective, Nation Media Group (NMG), long considered the market leader in the region, recently announced that it had recorded a Ksh375.2million loss in the first six months ending June 30, 2020.
The company attributed the huge loss to a major drop in advertising and circulation volumes. Over a similar period, the previous year, the company had posted a net profit of Ksh403.7 million.
The previous financial year, NMG’s after tax profits dropped from Ksh1.1 billion to Ksh856 million – a 23% reduction.
The trend is the same for all the other major media houses which had already resorted to mass layoffs even before Covid-19.
Shift to digital media
To mitigate the losses, in what industry observers see as a spirited effort to remain the regional market leader, NMG in June 2020 announced it was implementing major changes to transform into a fully-fledged digital media outlet. What followed shortly was the launch of their revamped website Nation.Africa.
It has to be said, though, that this bold move, like many the company has taken over the years, is a slippery path whose success is not guaranteed.
NMG is not alone. Their competitors are facing a similar dilemma in their fight for survival.
For instance, at Royal Media Service Limited (RMS), the leading broadcast media house in the region, several business models have been on the works, most notably the video-on-demand platform Viusasa, whose success so far remains a matter of debate.
Also, in a long-term strategy to align with changing times, one of its vernacular radio stations, Ramogi FM, has been transformed into an audiovisual platform.
Clearly, RMS is trying to re-imagine radio broadcast and to position itself as the king of radio by plunging into uncharted waters, probably informed by the success it has had in the last two decades when it ventured into broadcasting in local languages.
Kenyan newspapers, on their part, in a battle to win the heart and soul of the reader, have seen the sense of embracing e-papers. The free-sheet publication People Daily (PD) charges just Sh20 to access its e-paper. This is half of what the market leader, Daily Nation, charges.
This begs the question: what does the future hold for Kenya’s media in post Covid-19? How viable will the business models be?
Quoting former US president Abraham Lincoln, David Omwoyo, CEO of Kenya’s media regulator, the Media Council of Kenya, says, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”
This, he argues, summarises what the future holds for the industry post Covid-19.
“The media in East Africa will need to get extremely proactive in areas that we have not paid attention to, and realize that the digital era has shattered our artificial borders and that in reality we are one people,” he explains.
Omwoyo reckons that for “this future” to be sustainable, there is a need for unity in approach to protect press freedom and independence, while prioritizing media training and adherence to professional standards alongside a code for advertising in the digital space.
“It’s not a question of what the future holds, it is really a question of what we make of it; whether we will listen as media and move together to meet the needs and aspirations of our people and remain relevant in public discourse.”
A change in mindset and a change in practice, he says, are the two things that will keep the Kenyan media in business.
He partly blames the Kenyan media for being insular to forces of innovation and most tragically to their audiences, who were moving in their droves to digital platforms and consuming content in very new ways.
“Instead of keeping pace with them, we decided to stick with what worked in the past, either because of fear or simple stubbornness.”
In the wake of the pandemic, MCK in its report, put the number of journalists employed within Kenyan borders and who’ve been rendered jobless since March 2020 at 600.
Omwoyo says the virus has reminded us that the audience is king, and innovation its messenger. Media will thus have to put innovation at the forefront of its business strategies.
The second area that the media will have to change is practice. We are most likely to see fewer and smaller newsrooms with most content being outsourced from independent content creators – themselves former newsroom journalists.
This will require a change in practice and approach to journalism, requiring some re-skilling to understand how an independent contractor should operate and providing the support structure outside the newsroom to ensure there is quality content and the infrastructure and facilities to deliver such content.
Media role amplified
Media scholar Dr Sam Kamau notes that Covid-19 has amplified the role of the media in society as information and communication has been an important component in fighting the pandemic – with the media providing crucial information while countering misinformation to help people make sense of what is happening.
This, he notes, has also coincided with the general increase in consumption of news and information, especially during the early stages of the pandemic.
Media revenues – from advertising and events – will take a long time get back to ‘normal’ (and this might never happen). This means several things:
Dr Kamau reckons that media organisations, struggling to stay afloat, may be bought by profit-making telecos. For instance, Safaricom might be tempted to acquire Mediamax and leverage on their bigger reach, technology and infrastructure to distribute content.
“There will be greater investment in digital space and digital products targeting the younger people for whom there is no turning back,” Dr Kamau argues.
“Across all generations there has been notable increase uptake and consumption of online videos. This is an opportunity for media organizations, since this trend is likely to continue. Media executives and producers and editors will have to invest more on their online infrastructure and video capability to capture this audience and make money in the process,” he says.
The current disruption is a great opportunity for the media to adjust and adapt to the changing environment by seeking new revenue streams.
Just like New York Times adjusted to digital disruption, Covid-19 has presented an opportunity for local media houses to analyze the emerging trends and audience behaviour to come up with innovative ways of generating revenues.
Yet, it is also true that some media organisations will not survive Covid-19. Some will fold, some will be sold while many others will scale down their operations. Others will come out stronger.
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