During Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election skirmishes, a team of IT specialists and social activists developed an open-source software application called Ushahidi. The website (App) relied on members of the public from various parts of Kenya to collect, record and transmit eyewitness accounts of the events around them and the violence as it unfolded using text messages and Google maps.

Ushahidi became one of the biggest information crowdsourcing success stories in Kenya. It employed simple tech (SMS and email), citizen journalism, activism, and geospatial evidence to record, transmit, and archive one of the most challenging events in the history of modern Kenya. All the information was cleaned and then stored on the Ushahidi website. As a result, journalists, human rights groups, and election observers often refer to it in their work.

Ushahidi had two main advantages over local mainstream media houses. First, since its information was crowdsourced, it had unlimited reach when roads were blocked, and travel was dangerous and nearly impossible. Secondly, Ushahidi received raw and unfiltered data, unlike media houses that at the time were being accused by the public of suppressing certain information.

A few years after the success of Ushahidi, The Standard Media Group in Kenya added a section to their news website. They called it U-report. (Basic wordplay- You report). It was an open invitation to Kenyans all over the world to have their stories published. The section still exists on the website, and it runs all sorts of stories (politics, relationships, education, business, political analysis etc.) written by citizens.

Standard Printing Press

With Ushahidi’s success in crowdsourcing information and mainstream media houses recognising the power of citizen journalism, Kenya walked into a new era of audience participation in the journalism industry. The public (audience) ceased to be the inactive participants of the 1990s, who occasionally sent letters to the editors or called in to give a tip about a story or received T-Shirts when their favourite TV station showed up at their local town for a promotional event.

Audience power

Instead, the audience has become part of the newsgathering, product testing and content distribution. Local media audiences have grown so powerful (thanks to the changing social and business dynamics) that they can force a media product off-air/ off the shelves or even lead to the termination of the contract of a journalist.

Audience involvement has been remarkable locally. Due to access to new technology that makes capturing, recording and sharing information easy, audiences in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and even Somalia have moved from being mere consumers of content to active collaborators in the process of news gathering and content creation.

Citizen journalism (where members of the public generate and share (raw) news on blogs, personal websites, social media platforms) has introduced a new dimension in the news business.

Today, news reporters and legacy media rely on social media, personal blogs, and personal websites (and are part of social media groups and other closed digital community groups) to get scoops, breaking news and street clarification on developing stories. Consequently, the audience has become an informal but integral part of the newsgathering and verification process. Although it is discouraged, journalists use social media sources to build, confirm and stay on top of the news.

Periods of turmoil, like Kenya’s 2007-2008 post-election violence or the Arab Spring anti-government protests in the early 2010s, or more recently the political protests in Uganda, Sudan and Tanzania, offer the perfect case studies of media audience contribution to the news cycle.

Informal audience and media collaboration

At the height of the 2018-2019 protests against Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir. It was clear that the protests by thousands of young men and women were different. The demonstrators were not going to be beaten off the streets as in the past. When the government made this connection, it turned on journalists, starting with foreign correspondents.

Two Al Jazeera journalists had their in-country accreditation withdrawn, work permits for Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya TV and Turkey’s news agency Anadolu staff got withdrawn. In mid-January 2019, Sudanese security officers arrested about 20 local and international journalists from various outlets – but later released them.

The country had a media blackout for days. Meanwhile, the government heavily censored the content, and the security forces were always ready to threaten and intimidate journalists with warrants of arrests. At one point, Bashir’s government banned the publication of news and editorials.

Despite the restrictions, the men and women in the streets narrated to the world what was happening in Sudan. As they went out protesting, they took photos and recorded running battles with the police, the deaths of protestors, the speeches by protest leaders, and the random acts of kindness amidst the violence.

They shared the images in WhatsApp groups, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, personal blogs, and more importantly, they provided mainstream local and international media outlets with the raw footage. A good amount of the material used by BBC News to cover the events in Sudan (when the government made it difficult for foreign correspondents to operate) came from civilians on the streets. The audience informally collaborated with BBC News.

Audience as a product development sounding board

Nowadays, companies directly turn to their audiences for product feedback. It is not uncommon for new publications or new TV programs to be tested several times by the viewers or readers (a process that could take months) before the company launches the product to the broader public.

There is no easier way to get product reviews than by going directly to the audience. A survey that would have taken the product development or research & development team months to conduct can these days be done within one news hour.

Market surveys being run during news hour or a product review running on the Twitter handle of a media house or Facebook page have become common. A media company can have real-time feedback on various products without going through a research or marketing firm for this information. And, based on the information that they obtain from the in-house study, they can rework the product in the ways that they see fit.

Interactive relationship

New media platforms, especially digital platforms, have taken participatory audience relationships to a new level. For example, bloggers and Vloggers (including those that work for mainstream media outlets) have a direct relationship with their audiences. They write revealing personal stories, take their audiences on journeys with them as part of their content. Some of these can be done in real-time, such as those that stream their journeys or food experiences or music festival experiences.

Mainstream journalists have not been left behind either. A KTN news anchor and show host (Mike Gitonga) is known for his bike riding experiences (Mike on the Bike) just as much he is known for his TV work. Several female newsreaders use their social media platforms, especially Instagram, to bring their TV audience into their personal life stories.

While these may look like individual projects, journalists have learned that their interactions with their audiences off-screen or off-air are vital in growing that audience for themselves and the media companies. Radio and TV stations are very keen on hiring individuals with strong social media brands outside the station to boost the audience interaction rate.

Whether it is about societal concerns like Covid-19 sensitisation, crisis reporting, or commercial and business purposes, participatory audience engagement in mainstream and new media platforms works for all parties involved.

About the Author

Author ProfilePeter Oduor
Peter Oduor is a freelance writer, editor and a Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI – East Africa) fellow.

Similar articles

Media Innovation Centre partners with Mozilla to launch Pocket

The partnership will also ensure that local content is curated and distributed to better optimize the product and meet the needs of Kenyan online users.

Six tips journalists need to know when covering elections

Reporting on elections is, for many journalists, an opportunity to establish themselves as reliable political reporters. But the task comes with certain risks, particularly in the East African sub-region.

Stakeholders are now calling for concerted efforts, better planning and preparations for journalists before they are sent out on the field to cover Kenya’s high-stakes August 9 General Elections.

The perils of political reporting in East Africa

East Africa’s media grapples with a myriad of challenges whenever general elections approach. Not only do editors struggle with balancing the competing political interests, at times at the altar of professionalism, but individual journalists pay dearly, many suffering attacks in the course of their duties.

Enact policies that guarantee education for all

As Form One students settle into a new life in secondary school, this has also been a period of reflection. We have read tear-jerking and heart-warming stories of determined students who overcame many odds to get an education and how well-wishers came together in their aid.

Optimism in Tanzania’s media industry after a dark period

There is renewed optimism in the Tanzanian media space following the ascension to power of President Samia Suluhu whose regime is keen to relax some of the laws deemed punitive to journalists and media houses

RSF 2022 Press Freedom Index: A mixed bag for East Africa

Uganda fell behind, whereas Kenya improved its press freedom ranking in the Reporters Without Borders 2022 Press Freedom Index. And after years of media freedom decline, Tanzania appears to be on the right track. But overall, media freedom activists say there is still work to be done.

Good journalism does not come cheap

A free and independent press is the cornerstone of any democracy and the foundation of economic success, mostly because through our free press, we’re able to hold the leadership to account.

Opinion: Rethinking media houses revenue streams in the Digital era

To align with the changing times and stay relevant in the business, media houses are challenged to rethink their strategy and to adopt and understand obstacles and challenges they face towards rethinking and exploring alternative sources of revenue and on developing the digital strategy.

Hamasa Media Group: Tanzanian innovators with a solution to organisation management

A team of young, Tanzanian tech-savvy communication professionals is dreaming big. It seeks to usher a new dawn in media business management in Tanzania by optimising employee output and offering consultancy to media businesses on how they can operate with a minimal budget but still attain their goals.

The legal challenges facing East Africa’s bloggers and influencers 

Bloggers and influencers have become an integral component of information sourcing across East Africa. The public uses blogs, privately run websites and social networks to crowdsource information from social networks, which they then publish and distribute. But it’s not all rosy for this group of content makers.

Afyatoon: How two medics are transforming lives through story-telling

The chances of meeting a medical graduate practising journalism are usually very slim, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. But two Tanzanian physicians have broken away from that norm by inventing a start-up called Afyatoon. It uses visual art technology to tell compelling medical stories. They narrate to the EAST Site their experience and share their vision for the future.

Five astounding findings from the MCK state of Kenya’s Media Survey

Did you know that in 2021 Kenyans watched less TV and spent more time on social media? Or that some Kenyans rely on family, friends, or even social media icons and bloggers as a source of news and information? These are some of the conclusions highlighted in the 2021 State of the Media Survey conducted by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK).

Uganda’s media strives to reinvent itself post Covid-19

The effects of the Covid pandemic continue to change the world in ways we had not imagined possible. The media is going through a painful transformation to keep up with changing production, distribution and consumption habits. In East Africa, Uganda’s Media Challenge Initiative (MCI) recently hosted a panel discussion on Media Viability comprising experienced journalists from Television, Radio, Print and Online/Digital media to address lessons learned from the pandemic. East Site’s Moses Mutente attended the panel and compiled this article.

Opinion: Africa must revamp journalism education to include media ownership

In this commentary, Uganda-based journalist Caleb Okereke shares deep personal insights into why media schools in East Africa must rethink their curriculum. He stresses the need for trainers to begin teaching media ownership to better equip journalism students for the dynamic and cutthroat job market by taking us through his journey as a journalism student and media owner.

Dwindling trust in media raises concerns ahead of Kenya’s General Election

For the second year running, a survey commissioned by the Media Council of Kenya shows that the trust level in Kenyan media has nosedived, raising fundamental questions on how media will play its watchdog role more so with landmark elections set for August 9. EAST Site writer Isaac Swila explores.

Opinion: Media needs credibility to survive the pandemic and digital transformation

Legacy media is currently caught between a rock and a hard place — the Covid pandemic and the rise and proliferation of social media has hit revenues hard. Some say this could signal the end of news as we used to know it. However, Ugandan decorated journalist Ernest Bazanye believes the industry will survive and thrive, but not without a fight.

Opinion: We should all be concerned about the future of media

Free media is often described as the fourth estate, the gatekeeper, the whistleblower, and many more. American singer Jim Morrison once said, “whoever controls the media, controls the mind.” No wonder governments worldwide try hard to control the press. But the media itself, particularly in Uganda, faces a severe identity crisis that requires urgent action, writes guest commentator Jimmy Spire Ssentongo.

Invest in journalists’ verification skills to help curb disinformation, expert Redondo advises

World over, disinformation is a virus that continues to permeate newsrooms giving media managers and journalists a headache on how to deal with it. Dr. Myriam Redondo,  a newsroom trainer in digital verification and associate professor in International Relations (PhD) explains how to tackle the virus in an engagement with EAST Site writer Isaac Swila.

Opinion: Never lose sight of your vision when fundraising 

No one sits down to write proposals only to seek money. There’s an idea, a vision, an important goal, the need for impact, and last but not least, the need for change.

Media faulted over its coverage of people living with disabilities 

According to the World Health Organisation there are between 60-80million people with disabilities in Africa and over 1 billion in the world, many of whom live under deplorable conditions owing to societal myths.

How Kenyan journalists are preparing for the 2022 General Election 

Kenyan voters will go to the polls on August 7, 2022, to elect new leaders. As expected, the media is burning the midnight oil, trying to develop strategies to cover the polls. But how prepared are they?

Tanzania: Striving for women digital inclusion

Tanzania has a massive digital gender gap. As a result, it is unlikely to hear stories about successful Tanzanian women, either in leadership or the media.

Three reasons why a Human Centred Design is necessary for innovation

Ultimately, HCD is a toolbox containing multiple tools you can pick out, show your team how to use them, and ensure it becomes best practice

Meet the Tanzanian journalist passionate about the right to clean water and sanitation

Mohammed Hammie is not your typical reporter. In 2019, the young Tanzanian swapped from being a regular journalist to media for community empowerment and has since specialised in telling stories about the human right to access clean drinking water, particularly in rural areas.

Kenya’s Media Council defends move seeking journalists quit before vying for election

According to the MCK Chief Executive Officer, David Omwoyo, journalists eyeing political posts should be subjected to the same rules that apply to civil servants. That is to leave office six months to elections. But that’s not the only requirement.

AKU students media research spotlights hits and misses of Kenya’s media

The theses dwelt on thematic areas in Kenya’s media landscape, from solutions journalism, content analysis of the coverage of Covid-19 as well as data smog in the newsrooms, which  the findings show is having a devastating effect on print journalists.

Media Viability Study East Africa: Five interesting findings you should know

The study calls for solutions to structural, political, and societal conditions that jeopardize the future of media as a viable business and a source of high-quality journalism in East Africa

Covid-19: Kenyan journalists go behind the story

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives in unimaginable ways. Economies are bleeding. It has disrupted learning; millions have lost their jobs, while many others contend with reduced salaries. Yet, amidst the chaos and disruption, journalists – also hugely affected – have remained steadfast to their cause to tell stories of the pandemic. Some of them narrated their experiences to EAST site’s writer Isaac Swila.

OPINION: Modern journalism faces an existential threat

The Covid-19 pandemic and the technological shifts have caused severe consequences to today’s press. However, Prof George Nyabuga says the writing has long been on the wall, yet many chose to bury their heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich.

East Africa’s media powerhouses use convergence in business to stay afloat 

Ever since 170 journalists from Kenya’s Standard Group were made redundant in 2020, media experts argue that convergence of business processes in the media industry is an inevitable and necessary step. The term convergence has dominated media houses for years. But what does it mean and why is it crucial for the future of journalism in the region?