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.
In February 2020, just before the pandemic struck, the Audit Bureau of Circulation told us that all major newspapers in Uganda were losing sales. Ugbusiness.com reported that New Vision sales dropped by 5.1% in the last quarter of 2019, the Monitor, too, selling 0.8% less in the same period.
Although the pandemic is not solely to blame, it hastened the ongoing decline. However, the first lockdown was such a shock that even The New Vision had to cut salaries for the first time in its history.
Ironically, it seems like the consumption of news has never been higher. Information, as a commodity, is selling like hot cake during the pandemic. People who had no previous interest in the balance of payments, fiscal policy restructuring, development indices and such now crave instant news all day, all week, all year, all two blighted years long.
We wanted updates on the latest science on the coronavirus. Hence, we refreshed our Twitter feeds, forwarded links on our WhatsApp groups, and shared both information and misinformation prolifically. Then, when the ubiquity of Covid news became stifling, we needed respite, so we got Netflix passwords and subscribed to Spotify podcasts.
Same food, different menu
Even if the consumption of newspapers went down as social media rose, the actual consumption of news went up, especially during the pandemic. During Uganda’s Age of Pestilence, people listened more keenly to what was happening. That is probably why the plague of misinformation spread much faster than the plague of Covid. It found accessible avenues because we wanted to hear the news in real-time, quickly and sensationally. A scandalous tweet beats out a 1,500-word analysis of deep grey newsprint any day.
The evolution of the news cycle
It’s probably the media’s fault. Jon Stewart was an accidental journalist. He was the host of a parody news show that, incidentally, was aired by CNN. The Daily Show was an early harbinger of what would become a radical shift in a generation’s news consumption patterns. Though it set out to be a satire of news, parodying the po-faced earnestness, the anxiety and the agitation of 24-hour news, it soon became the leading news source for young urban Americans between the ages of 21-35.
Jon Stewart wrapped up the problem thus: “Look, we certainly were part of that ecosystem, but I don’t think that news became entertainment because they thought our show was a success.” According to Stewart, 24-hour news networks were built for one thing: the 9/11 terror attacks in the US.
“There are very few events that would justify being covered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So in the absence of urgency, they have to create it. You create urgency through conflict,” said Stewart.
News had to ramp up the hype for 24-hour news to compete for attention. You were not just competing with other news; you were competing with leisure itself. You were competing with doing nothing. So you had always to make it look like what you were saying was vital enough to make sure that people were watching at every moment of the 24 hours of the day.
Such a news cycle most likely had the long-term effect of training viewers and readers to expect sensation, conditioning us to expect urgency and exclamation marks, to see the news in extreme superlatives. As a result, audiences laid aside circumspection and patience. We put away old-fashioned habits like hearing from both sides, informing your own opinion, weighing the facts and trusting expertise and research.
Perhaps the screaming banshee of fake news is more credible to us because we have learned to expect the truth to come in screaming: “They are lying to you!”, “Shocking revelations!”, “Conspiracy!”, “Shocking Details Uncovered!”, “Shocking this!”, “Shocking that!”
In this day and age: “Stay calm. The scientists are working on it. Just keep your mask on, spritz and don’t stand too close together,” sounds less like real news than “Vaccines Make Africans Impotent!”
News value depreciating
The pandemic and the growth spurt of new media injured mainstream media by undercutting the commercial imperative. No one can sell news now. It is not scarce, so it has no commercial value. We can find out what is going on for free, without waiting for the top of the hour or the evening edition to hit the streets. So we don’t pay for news anymore. Meanwhile, we are paying for more internet.
In 2016, 20,000 Uganda shillings (USh), approximately $6, got you 500MB, none of which you would waste on YouTube. However, 5,000 USh got you one hour at an internet cafe.
Now you have a whole GB on your phone for that same amount, and who needs internet cafes when we can access all the internet we need in our jeans pocket?
Credibility is rare and valued enough to command a price because news is one thing, but insight, understanding, and expertise are different. Within the mad storm of social media amateurs and scaremongers, they are painstakingly hard to discern. Ugandan netizens value the latest piece by Jimmy Spire Sentongo or Charles Onyango Obbo more than they do the front page. So having someone trustworthy, knowledgeable and honest go out, find out the truth, and bring it back to us? That is sorely needed and much-sought-after today.
And that is what will keep the news alive. That is what media companies need to know as we plough through the pandemic and survive it. This is what journalism education should be about as we move on.
Journalism is about to become an honourable vocation and a vital public service again. It is about to become, once again, what holds a crumbling world together.
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