Almost all newsrooms, big and small, have had their operations severely affected by the devastating disruption wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic leading to loss of hundreds of jobs. Worse still, revenue sources for broadcast and print publications have shrunk as businesses collapse.

Hundreds of journalists in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have lost their jobs and those lucky enough to be retained have had to agree to pay cuts.

In Uganda, the Vision Group implemented wage cuts, furloughs, and then finally closed three newspapers in May last year, just two months after suspending printing because of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The three newspapers – published in local languages –  had served rural readers for decades.  One of them, Rupiny, was distributed in northern Uganda, and had been key in reporting the bloody insurgency led by Joseph Kony in the region.

“We are losing the library of local languages. These newspapers were a resource and reference point for learners,” Barbara Kaija, the Vision Group Editor-in-Chief, said.

Job loss

Revenue sources for broadcast and print publications have shrunk as businesses collapse or got their marketing budgets to respond to the shocks inflicted by the pandemic.

All this is happening at a time when the role of the media to provide accurate, timely, and reliable information is desperately needed, especially with the increasing problem of misinformation and disinformation.

In Kenya, the Editors Guild opted to appeal for a rescue plan for the industry. In a letter to the government the body proposed several ways this could be done including creating a media sustainability fund.

“The government has already committed funds to help the tourism industry which has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19. The same consideration should be extended to the media sector,” the Guild argued in its letter, urging the government to follow the example of some developed countries.

Call for media support

This situation, however, threatens media independence as has happened before; the authorities could withhold advertising to punish or influence editorial decisions.

In Uganda, there hasn’t been a collective push to ask for a rescue plan but some media organisations have independently campaigned for help.

Ms Kaija, for example, appealed to the Ugandan government to support local language papers after the Vision Group ended publication of three vernacular newspapers because they became economically unviable.

In Tanzania, where life has barely been disrupted by the pandemic, the media is facing the same challenges.

But even as the regional media industry gathers itself together to respond to the Covid-induced disruption, many top managers, no doubt, are regretting not being better prepared to deal with the emergency changes that have been forced on the industry.

They had ample time, at least a decade I would say, to build and establish digital operations and/or run lean and efficient legacy businesses after seeing how the media in most developing countries changed, adapted, and succumbed to the digital disruption.

But, it must be noted, that even those that were quick to pivot failed to make the desired impact.

Structural changes

This is largely because the structural changes they made have not been robust, the newsroom culture has not evolved, funding for the new ventures have been inadequate, and the media has not done a good job of engaging and collecting data about its audiences – these lapses show in their operations.

For example, in May last year, Kenyan newspapers announced a partnership with Safaricom, the country’s largest telecoms company, to sell their products on its rich network.

Readers can now buy and subscribe to the papers’ digital versions. It’s strange that it has taken so long for the partnership to happen.

Equally intriguing is the failure of the media to learn from Safaricom, arguably the most innovative company in the region. Its mobile money platform – Mpesa – has been an innovative marvel used by millions of loyal customers. Its success is largely powered by a data-driven strategy.

A visit to the websites of The Nation, Standard and The Star instantly reveals how the papers are trying to play catch up.

They have belatedly intensified their push to connect with their readers, encouraging them to register to access their content.

Had this been done a few years ago it would have been a useful vault to understand audiences and convert returning readers to paying subscribers, rather than using a third-party platform like Safaricom to sell products.

One fascinating story I heard a while back comes to mind.

Safaricom noticed an uptick in the borrowing of short term mobile loans in the early morning hours which the lenders would promptly refund later in the day.

The company later found that the borrowers were vegetable retailers -mostly women – who borrowed money to buy their supplies at the crack of dawn at a Nairobi market.  They would later refund the borrowed capital after a day-long sale.

I never followed up on the legacy of this story but I can imagine the fascinating data points Safaricom gleaned and the likely product or services this story inspired.

That’s what good data does, it gives granular insights that can be used to improve services helping to offer relevant products and build brand loyalty. This should be an inspiration for the media but of course within the limits of data protection laws.

Here’s a media example.  I have to admit it’s unfair to compare the New York Times’ impressive digital growth to East Africa’s media – nonetheless it’s instructive to learn from the best.

I remember reading the leaked NYT’s Innovation Report in 2014 which exposed an internal crisis, an organisation coming to terms with the reality of its regression and the threats it faced at the time from digital insurgents like BuzzFeed, Gawker, Vox.

But its fortunes changed and remarkably so thanks to its former CEO Mark Thompson, who stepped down last year after eight years. He reflected on the task he faced when he took up the job in an exit interview.

NYT Success

“The biggest flashing red light when I got to the Times was that the rate at which we were gaining digital subscribers was slowing down—and slowing down very abruptly. It was something like 74,000 in my very first quarter, the last quarter of 2012. By the second quarter of 2013, it was 22,000 or 23,000,” he said.

NYT now has close to six million subscribers, who have become the publication’s leading source of revenue.

Mr Thompson said that it took reorganising how NYT operates, building new products, and hiring new talent to come up with a clear unambiguous ‘subscriber first’ strategy.

Can this success be replicated? For some, yes.

But for most the ‘innovation’ will have to involve a complete overhaul, resisting the temptation of a quick fix and simply integrating the next shiny new thing: a mobile app, a podcast, or new website.

But I can’t fault the effort, because things were not rosy before Covid: some of the challenges the media is facing today are not new but have mostly been exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Since business as usual is no longer sustainable, what should the media do?

They should invest in understanding themselves and their rapidly changing markets so that they can adjust, create and sell relevant services and profitable products.

But in this moment of constant flux nothing is guaranteed, some things will work and others will fail and do so spectacularly.

And as if there isn’t enough already to worry about, the threat to practising journalism freely in the East African region casts a long, worrying shadow.

According to an Afrobarometer study released in 2019, Ugandans overwhelmingly support media independence and reject government oversight of media content; Kenya registered 50% pro-media support in this study but 56% of Tanzanians backed the government.

This is a contest the media in the region do not want to lose. The public has to be on their side to effectively push back on the encroaching state control. Yes, even in Tanzania.

Public Trust

So how can the media hold on to public trust?

In my view these questions should be a constant guide:  why do we do what we do?  Is it valuable? What does the audience think of what we do?

A paywall, an events team, a newsletter, podcast and other emerging audience and revenue strategies are great but people have to trust you first.

Transparency is key; share your processes, be open to criticism, invite questions, listen more. The BBC has a programme suitably named Over To You which does exactly this.

It’s simple. The media cannot and will not solve its revenue problem if it doesn’t fix its trust problem, its very survival depends on it.

So the pandemic, like a mirror, should force the media in the region to look at itself critically and correct what’s not working.

About the Author

Author ProfileDickens Olewe
Dickens Olewe is an alum of the JSK Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. He hosts The Dickens Olewe podcast which covers media innovation in Africa

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