Towards the end of the first quarter of 2020, Kenya’s Standard Group sent an email announcing its intention to sack 170 journalists from various departments. The main reason for the impending downsizing (which has since happened) was the poor business performance the company was experiencing.
In the email, the company’s CEO Orlando Lyomu listed four items of concern: The company’s efforts at realigning the structure of the organisation to deal with emerging media business trends and challenges, changes arising from automation of some of its vital internal processes, the changing media trends in the region brought by digital technology and, lastly, the company’s plan to outsource non-core services. It seemed simple enough; however, what was happening in the background was complicated and massive. The company was accelerating its plans of ensuring convergence in its business processes.
The Standard Group, which runs three TV stations in Kenya, several newspaper publications including dailies and weeklies, leading radio stations, and online platforms, explored bringing these outfits and their journalists under one operational and leadership structure. This way, reporters who previously worked only for Radio Maisha, The Standard newspaper, and KTN News (TV) were synchronised.
When the CEO talked about realigning the organisation’s structure and automation of some internal processes, he meant convergence. Physically, The management partly redesigned the Standard Group newsroom floor to reflect the changes. Some departments were disbanded, others merged, and then 170 workers lost their jobs.
Switching to digital-first
From as far back as 2012, leading mainstream media houses in Kenya and the region had begun talking about ’a digital first’ approach to their journalistic activities. ‘Digital first’ was the understanding that the internet and technology (including the public’s access to the internet through mobile phones and other convenient technological gadgets) had changed the landscape of content generation, content packaging, marketing and distribution.
Central to this change was convergence, a term that has dominated local newsrooms this decade. Simply put, convergence is achieved when different media practitioners (news people), working for different and traditionally separate mediums (radio, TV, newspapers, film, magazines, websites etc.) merge their operations. They also share their resources in producing and distributing news and other media products.
Convergence is often done simultaneously through an integrated approach to delivering news to audiences. It is a technological shift that creates deliberate cooperation and deliberate content flow through different media platforms. The convergence of production and distribution of media content and other media business processes has directly inspired change in business paradigms within the industry. It has led to new creative initiatives and enhanced media operations’ efficiency, among other benefits.
The success of convergence in Uganda
In 2017, three years before The Standard Group’s convergence plans in Nairobi, Nation Media Group in Uganda was already at it. The group, based in Kampala, is the publisher of the Daily Monitor and Ennyanda Sports Weekly. In addition, it runs NTV Uganda, Dembe FM and KFM radio, and several online platforms similar to its Kenyan and Tanzanian counterparts.
Journalists working for any Nation Uganda’s outfits were expected to use their content in at least three of the available platforms. For instance, a radio news reporter for KFM might be expected (upon finishing his radio piece) to write a longer article that would go on one of the websites and a much longer report that can be published in the Daily Monitor newspaper. All of which should possess the distinct nuances and tone of the individual publications.
“We gave it time. We started doing it on a project basis where we identify projects and work on them in a convergence style,” Sam Barata, General manager- Commercial at Nation Media Group Uganda, said. “You will not find one doing only for TV, print or radio. We have been able to score major successes.”
The argument for convergence of business processes in the media is that it is an inevitable and necessary step in the media industry’s evolution.
Convergence is necessary, not just as an evolutionary step in the cycle of media business but for its very existential future. East Africa’s media industry in East Africa is right now and will probably be in the middle of the adoption stage of digital media for the next couple of years.
For the audiences, convergence has brought choice and access to a much larger pool of media content. This convenience also comes with a better user experience and higher quality media products.
It has led to a significant reduction in the cost of producing and disseminating news for media houses. In the past, different media platforms owned by one company had to have separate teams for them to run effectively (a costly affair). Convergence removes this hurdle by utilising the time and skills of one reporter to create a product that can be used on multiple platforms, thereby saving the company the cost and time of having that same task performed by three different people.
A TV news presenter can read news for radio if the station owns both radio and TV. It is common to see and read newspaper feature stories written by investigative TV news reporters in Kenya. These investigative news feature stories (credited to the investigative TV reporter) usually appear in print the morning that follows the night of airing the investigative feature on TV. That is convergence at work.
In 2018, Kenyan journalist Maryanne Gicombi wrote a paper assessing convergence in newsrooms in Kenya using Nation Media Group’s Business Desk as a case study. It was part of her Masters of Arts Degree in Communication Studies submitted at The University of Nairobi.
She found that as of 2016, “Business Daily, NTV Business and Daily Nation Business Desk had been integrated into one desk to eliminate duplication of roles in the previous system where each of these platforms would operate individually as independent teams. Under the new converged newsroom, only one reporter and one cameraman would be sent out into the field, and they were expected to develop content that would run across all the three platforms.”
An assessment of newsroom convergence: A case study of Nation Media Group’s Business Desk, as her paper was titled, also revealed that these new teams were expected to work 24-hour shifts to meet the audience’s news and information demands. Apart from this, all the business reporters and editors from the three different platforms were moved from their various floors (offices) and put on the same floor.
Convergence in media companies often come in three visible spheres of media business:
Little joy for journalists
While it might be suitable for the audiences and the media companies, convergence has very minimal rewards for journalists. Apart from the fact that their work is available on multiple platforms and therefore assured of reaching a larger group of readers, viewers or listeners, journalists who are part of a converged business system have larger workloads for the same amount of pay.
For example, an investigative reporter on NTV whose work gets aired during the 9:00 pm news, the same report appears in the Daily Nation newspaper the following day, on the Nation-Africa website and on the Nairobi News website (owned by NMG Nairobi) will only be paid once. That is even though the reporter has to customise his content for each of these platforms. It used to be that correspondents would get paid for the number of times their content appeared in print, online on-screen or on-air, but the company’s management proposed otherwise.
Lastly, job losses arising from disbanded teams or journalists are declared redundant when platforms converge. This was partly the case of the 170 from Standard Group. It has happened across media houses in the region too.
By and large, convergence helps optimise teams’ performance within a media house (which benefits audiences), reducing wastage of time and avoiding duplication of roles. For media houses, it helps reduce financial inefficiencies while maximising output and profits.
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