On April 23, 2021, Carole Kimutai, Managing Editor, Digital at Standard Group, had a meeting at the Standard Media Group offices along Mombasa Road in Nairobi. She was the only journalist on the table. Others were a tech person (a coder), an audio editor and a graphics designer.

The meeting was Covid-19 health regulations compliant, with masks drawn up over their noses, socially distanced seats and the universal understanding among the participants that the discussion should be brief. The four talked about podcasts and how to enhance the user experience in podcasts produced by the Standard Group.

Later, she explained some of the concepts she was up to in the meeting, “We want all these people with different skills to think about the audience. We want them to pull in the same direction. We talked about the podcast design on the mobile phone because 90 per cent of our traffic is on mobile phones. The designer and tech person at first had not seen this. They focused on the design for PC machines. I had to remind them that we will have two designs, but the priority is mobile, then PC.”

She worries about minute details. Items other people may casually consider ‘small things’ like using static images or images in motion to accompany a headline or write podcast descriptions in Swahili or English when doing Swahili podcasts. These things matter to the audiences. They matter to Carole more. She doesn’t decide whether to use dancing (heavy images) or static images from her gut. She uses data. Static photos load faster, giving better user engagement. Analysis of feedback data tells her that Kenyan audiences enjoy listening to Swahili, but they struggle reading it.

Redesign the newsroom

Carole’s task is to grow digital audiences for media products at the Standard Group. This includes the newspaper products (Standard newspaper and the Nairobian weekly), broadcast products (KTN News and KTN Home), Radio Maisha and Standard Digital products (Ureport, SDE, Farmers and the company’s main news website).

Her role is central to a growth strategy that the Standard Group has been earnestly pursuing since 2019. The Kenyan media giant has employed tactics that have seen the company reorganise its workforce. It has invested in multi-million-shilling state of the art equipment for its broadcast units, bring down office walls, reconstruct the newsroom, and redesign its leading newspaper, among other changes. The three-year-old project has been done in consultation with a team of communication and media experts from Europe.

Despite all this work, the company is not out of the woods yet.

“Media houses now have to be very deliberate. We are getting to understand audiences better through their feedback. The audience is key; you have to be specific to who you are addressing, about how you talk to them and be specific about where you present your content/ products to them. We are learning a lot, doing a lot of retraining of journalists,” Carole said.

The changes at the Standard Group are not unique. The need for skills (some of which weren’t part of the East African media industry two decades ago) is now paramount. Besieged by changing media trends, dwindling revenue, and pains to keep up with rapidly changing audience needs, every media house in the region has had to rethink its strategies.

Dwindling revenues

“The industry is in pain. It has been disrupted,” said Ochieng Rapuro, Standard Group’s Editor-in-Chief. “Its business models have been disrupted, leading to a steady decline in revenue. In such a scenario, the business has to shrink to enable it to carry its weight.

If you do nothing about this, you can use the rate of yearly revenue decline to calculate the exact number of years it will take for your company to be unable to support its operations and collapse. We started to rethink our business model. We decided to execute a strategic plan to move us to a predominantly digital set-up,” the man in whose hands the company’s transformation lies, added.

He told the EAST SITE that to become relevant to the digital audience, the firm embarked on an ambitious plan towards being a digital-first company through convergence.

The company decided to move away from working in silos where TV stood on its own, newspapers people on their own, radio and digital platforms too operated on their own. Instead, they created a newsroom that holds all the content creators (TV staff, radio team, writers and journalists for print and online), all working as a team, from a central physical location for better collaboration.

Massive changes

The magnitude of the changes has been immense. The newsroom structure that involved office reconstruction took eight months. The company purchased better equipment, including robotic cameras and a machine that can print and arrange (package) newspapers at the rate of 60,000 – 80,000 copies per hour.

Other changes were in human resources, including the shedding of some staff (partly due to the industry’s financial strain and creating room for different skill sets in the newsroom). The entire enterprise cost hundreds of millions of shillings.

“We know that audiences are leaving legacy platforms. We are heading to digital platforms where there is promise and opportunity. You have to be a media platform that can serve people on the go. We want to serve people on the go while at the same time giving them in-depth, factual and relevant (slow journalism) news stories,” Rapuro said when asked about the outcome of the ongoing changes in the Standard Group newsroom.

He says the plan is at par with the pace of news while presenting facts, verifiable information, and analysis. The company seeks to establish itself as a strong player in the local and regional digital space and then make money in a framework that works within these spaces.

The 2020 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, published in collaboration with Oxford University, was generated from insights on media products consumption by YouGov survey done in 40 media markets globally, including Kenya and South Africa.

The report presented a few undeniable facts, two of which directly reflect what Ochieng Rapuro and his team at the Standard Group feel regarding audience behaviour. One is that world markets, including Kenya and South Africa, have seen a steep rise in digital media and mobile media use as an interface of news consumption. The other is that misinformation through the deliberate spread of fake news or the careless acts of well-intentioned social media users is a growing problem.

First and fast in breaking news

Misinformation and the need to be fast (and first) in delivering information as newsrooms change bothers the Media Council of Kenya. The Council reckons that breaking news stories has been the duty of mainstream media outlets. It also understands that this is changing. Online platforms like TwitterFacebook and blogs present alternative breaking news sources. Julius Sigei, a former editor at Nation Media Group, currently a senior officer, training and curriculum development, at Media Council of Kenya, told the  EAST SITE how he trains journalists the need to be fast while at the same time being factual and ethical.

“This is a challenge that journalism schools and organisations like ours face. At the core, the conversation is about the original tenets of journalism: truth/accuracy, timeliness. So, we train them to observe these principles. Speed is not more important than accuracy. Traditional media may never beat the army of Twitterati at work from all corners of the country. That is no longer in doubt. What people come to mainstream media to do is to verify what they have seen in social media and to understand issues deeply. Therefore, analysis, context, what it all means to the reader is what we train the modern journalist to pursue,” he wrote in response to a set of emailed questions.

Professor Hezron Mogambi at The University of Nairobi School of Journalism and Mass Communication says the internet and social networks have upended the game. “What the internet and social networks have done is to give audiences and media sources the power to become media platforms themselves,” Mogambi said, adding that this is a challenge to the traditional role of editorial mediation that newsrooms have long enjoyed.

“To keep up with these changes, media houses should have regular and constant training modules to keep the teams updated on changes in the industry. This will help them keep pace and keep the capacity to define public agenda in a much more immediate and global way.”

He says that while some media organisations find it challenging to keep pace, training institutions like media schools and colleges have it even harder; budgets and economic problems. The quality of training (both lecturers and equipment) is behind the times. He points out that the solution is to ensure that human resource, software, and hardware move with the times; this is the only way high-quality journalism will match contemporary realities and practices.

Keeping up with digital trends

On the day that the EAST SITE met the team at Standard Group, a photo of President Uhuru Kenyatta, taken during an official trip in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was a point of online excitement and unending social media debate. The day before, State House Kenya posted a photo of the president on its social media pages on his DRC trip. The picture showed that he had added weight (not in DRC, he was only there for a few days).

Carole Kimutai has a phone that functions like a mini-information terminal. She can access data on trending topics on social media in Kenya, look at the data, and analyse how Standard newspaper stories or TV stories, podcasts are doing online. She saw the photo of the president in Kinshasa. Data on the online conversation surrounding the image told her that it was a hot topic.

When one of her team members suggested doing an article about it, the team discussed the proposal. It concluded that there was no proper and reasonable way of entering into that conversation. They dropped it. She makes this kind of calls each day. She knows that the evolution of content is based on the needs of the audience and their consumption habits.

According to her, one of the best things to have happened in the media industry lately is the ability to use data to know what readers, viewers, or listeners want. It makes her work as a decision-maker easier when crafting and executing a user-driven media consumption experience. But she also knows that her duty in the new ‘newsroom’ is to choose between what makes it to the Standard Group platforms and those that don’t. Even though conversation by the public and data around that topic suggests, it is a hot topic.

About the Author

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

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