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.
My decision to start a media company while in university had both pros and cons. The first thing I struggled with was having to combine studying full time and running a media organisation. I didn’t realise how tasking this would be until I had to live it day by day. On the other hand, there seemed to be a visible advantage. I assumed that I would be able to put a lot of what I had learned in school into practice and was expecting a very workable experience of my university education. Unfortunately, this was not precisely the case.
Studying done alongside the process of managing a media company was a resolve that often involved a conditional and not entirely exciting. It involved splitting of my brain to oscillate between media founder and student. This was further exacerbated because my knowledge in school did not directly reflect my present challenges as both an editor and media founder of a primarily digital publication.
Empowering the masses through stories
The plan with Minority Africa, the company I started in November 2019, was to have a digital publication that tells minority stories from across Africa using a data-driven multimedia approach.
It’s safe to say we have achieved this in the two-plus years of our firm’s existence. We’ve published over 50 feature-length multimedia stories and reached around 500,000 people through our website and social media. Minority Africa has featured on DW and IJNET, the latter as a platform using ‘innovative storytelling for inclusion’, raised a considerable amount of funding to continue the work, and trained several journalists on how to cover minority stories.
Rebooting journalism training
My university education endowed me with many incredible skills that I have been able to put into practice. However, I believe journalism training as it is currently, and precisely in East Africa, needs some fixing, especially when you consider how news production and consumption has changed due to Covid-19.
I say this both as a recent graduate in journalism from a university in Uganda and as a media founder and journalist who’s worked for various national, regional, and international publications.
Generally, I discovered that my university curriculum, however great, seemed to be set and locked into a time in which journalism training and practice were a lot more conventional. For instance, while we learned how to design or write for newspapers, we were taught almost nothing about creating or writing for online media. Similarly, even though we learned how to shoot and edit videos, audios, and photos, our media instructors spoke little about the importance of syndicating such content for [modern] digital audiences.
We were not exposed to digital forms of audio, video, and photo distribution. Instead, the entire syllabus mirrored an old-fashioned view of journalism where people simply work for traditional media or venture into public relations.
In some cases, my university tried to organise training sessions with external facilitators during which we were equipped with some fundamental digital skills. But in a broader sense, there was no room in the existing curriculum for what happens if a person decides to start a media company or innovate around present obstacles. And so, we learned nothing about media revenue, business models, grants, or just the fundamentals of starting and sustaining a media company if we decided to follow that path.
The question of media ownership
It is plausible to draw inferences as to why this is the case. First, top media ownership is split among billionaires and business moguls and not necessarily trained journalists. From The Washington Post to The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic, these media companies are owned by business individuals with little to no journalism experience.
But there is a sharp contrast to how some of these well-established news outlets were founded. The Atlantic, for example, began in 1857 when a group of men, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were a blend of writers, essayists, editors, and poets, came together to form the magazine. More than 150 years later, the magazine is now owned by American billionaire businesswoman Laurene Powell Jobs.
The debate on whether or not billionaires should own media companies and the impact on editorial independence has been explored elsewhere and is not my focus in this piece. Instead, my proposition is an evaluation of what’s lacking in how we teach and approach journalism.
Whether in Uganda or elsewhere, journalism education has been designed to align with the most cardinal occurrence, culminating in a system in which journalists are merely people who practise ‘journalism’ but not people who start or own ‘journalism.’
I believe that they can be both. There is, of course, a need for journalists to learn how to do quality journalism, but there is a corresponding exigency for them to know how to start a media company and how to sustain it. This need is notably greater for media companies disseminating news stories and creators publishing newsletters and podcasts in Africa, where colonialism influenced and distorted media ownership.
In North Africa, for example, the press in the region was brought by the French colonialists who published numerous newspapers and controlled them. The very first paper was published in 1820 in Morocco. It was in Spanish and was called African Liberal. At the same time, these papers advanced the colonialists’ ideals and presented French occupation as life-saving to indigenous people. Printing in Arabic or importing Arabic articles was strictly forbidden.
In Anglophone Southern and Central Africa, the press was mainly introduced and owned by European settlers. In the Cape Colony, there was a law mandating a 300 pounds fee before press operators could publish. French colonialists across Francophone Africa worked hard to ensure only colonial media thrived by placing a heavy tax on printing imports to discourage homegrown media initiatives.
‘Decolonising’ media ownership
Today, one-third of all African stories in news outlets on the continent continue to be sourced from foreign news agencies and services. My idea of media decolonisation involves African media professionals not just working for foreign media organisations as correspondents but extending to include them owning media. This progress, I believe, continues to be stunted by the content and direction of journalism education.
I have been fortunate to be a media Innovator in Residence since January 2021 with Aga Khan University in Kenya and DW Akademie for my media startup, Minority Africa. This residency reserved for disruptive media innovations across Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, has opened my eyes to the nitty-gritty of media ownership and an incredible network of African journalists and storytellers who are innovating and starting their niche and peculiar media companies. From the LAM Sisterhood in Kenya, who were part of my cohort, telling stories to make African women feel seen, heard, and beloved, to Ona Stories, Tanzania’s first VR and AR storytelling company.
The common thread is that these media companies are founded and owned by people with experience in creating the content they are disseminating. I’ve seen the same in Nigeria, where I am from. Media companies like the Rustin Times that tell LGBTQ+ stories and Document Women platforming African women’s history are both founded and run by journalists. This [media ownership] bolsters the possibility for a novel African media landscape in which journalists can go further beyond just reporting on the news. Africa’s journalism education must reflect this prospect.
I am not ignorant to the reality that changes to a curriculum are not a walk in the park. Nonetheless, I believe discourse like this marks the initial start to a revolution. The realisation and eventual acceptance that the norm as we know it might be leaving a critical component out can then prompt institutions of learning across the region to strategise on ways to prepare journalism students and journalism practitioners outside of the curriculum for a future in media ownership.
Media Challenge Initiative(MCI) collaborated in the publication of this article
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