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.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world in 2019, different sectors and industries, including the media – went to ‘buckle up’ mode worldwide. However, no one fully understood the kind of ride awaiting them.

A roller coaster, maybe? The difference is that the adrenaline-filled experience of riding roller coasters is usually short-lived. On the contrary, the two-year long pandemic proved no typical roller coaster hitting every Ugandan sector and re-shaped the media industry, from content creators to distributors.

Even though consumer demand for content has skyrocketed, advertising revenues have abruptly declined, leading to pay cuts and job losses.

For example, Josephine Katabarwa, a former passionate radio presenter at Sanyu FM, found herself becoming a podcaster after losing her job.

“I had other hobbies; podcasting was one of them, and it is just the one that seemed to have had legs, so I had to let go of all the others,” Katabarwa who was one of the panelists at the recently concluded third edition of Media Viability Talk organised by the Media Challenge Initiative (MCI) Uganda, said.

The discussion aimed to explore and share opportunities and lessons learned by the media industry in Uganda during the two years of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic.

Need to up the skills

According to Sandra Kekirunga, a journalist with Appraise Media, Covid brought Uganda’s media to a turning point. “There are a lot of positives. People saw that you could be effective, and you can work from home,” Kekirunga said, pointing to the need for journalists to upscale their trade.

“We need to acquire digital life skills either as students of journalism or content creators, business owners or even media viability consultants to be relevant to the future”

Stepping out of the comfort zones

“We were forced to conceptualise and become more creative to survive,” said Peter Mukiibi, founder and creative director of Addmaya company, a film, design and digital production agency. Mukiibi admitted that Covid-19 forced them to start thinking differently and acting creatively.

Interestingly, the paradigm shift opened a door for them to acquire new international clients due to their increased use of social media in promoting their content beyond Uganda.

For Julian Mwine, NTV Head of News, the pandemic lockdown was a boon to TV media houses. Since people mostly worked from home, viewership increased as few recreation possibilities were available.

However, the pandemic hit business entities hard. As a result, ad revenues were profoundly affected in the media industry.

During this cash dry spell, a large chunk of revenue came from the health ministry and civil society in Covid-19 public service announcements.

The declining revenue cornered most Ugandan media houses, catapulting them to develop new programs to bring in non-ad revenues. “Because of the revenue problem, we now got the chance to think otherwise and began to go into producing educational content for students at home,” Moses Kasasa, station manager from Bukedde TV1, said.

Every challenge presents an opportunity

During the pandemic, Uganda’s media outlets worked closely with the government, especially the Ministry of Health, to report on the number of new coronavirus infections and update the public on vaccination campaigns. This closeness and transparency cultivated a mutually beneficial relationship between media and government.

For example, the health ministry and other government agencies needed media outlets to broadcast health-related messages. In contrast, the media needed access to key government decision-makers that were typically hard to find before the pandemic.

“It created a kind of dependency; it was very easy to question some of these things if the need arose,” Kasasa added.

‘Radio is here to stay’ 

If there was a time that the digital disruption would test the radio’s dominance, then it was during the last two years. In Uganda, radio remains a chief source of news and information for most rural and urban people.

During this crisis, Uganda’s radio outlets have proved to be a lifeline for citizens. One of the panelists, Masamba Ghilsain from X FM, couldn’t agree more. He strongly suggested that “radios are here to stay.” Moreover, he refuted the widely held belief that radio is only popular in rural areas. “Radio stations still have vast passive listeners in towns – those walking around with their earphones all day long.”

Another important observation was the massive efforts by radio stations to push most of their content on social media platforms, such as TikTok, which saw tremendous growth during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We jumped onto social media and began following entities like Jumia and Glovo. It was about being innovative and finding ways to interest people to get their phones and to advertise to them from there. That is what helped us to stay afloat,” Masamba said.

Print media ‘in ICU’ during lockdown

The steep decline in advertising revenues, poor circulation amid Covid lockdowns, and consumers tightening their belts due to the uncertainties nearly brought Uganda’s print journalism to its knees. As a result, several print media houses had to cut salaries. For instance, papers like New Vision slashed up to 60% off wages for some employees. The Daily Monitor had salary reductions of up to 35% for its staff.

Some newspaper companies had to completely shut down their printing editions and go fully digital to cope with the new reality. The Kampala Sun was one of them, as noted by Emmanuel Sejjengo, who was also at the MCI Media Viability Talk.

“Soon after the lockdown, there were means to try to cut the gap through setting up the subscription for readers,” The Kampala Sun editor said.

Nevertheless, the newspaper subscription business model has proved to be less effective, with fewer Ugandans ready to pay for an e-paper. Ironically, print media journalists blamed the rise of social media as a news source for that dismal number of subscriptions.

Author: Moses Mutente, East Site

About the Author

Author ProfileMoses Mutente
Moses Mutente is a Project Management professional turned journalist. He has worked at the Africa Media Group Limited for five years as a Radio and TV producer. He’s also had stints at Magic FM in Dar es Salaam. He’s currently working as a Project Officer – Media Development at DW Akademie under the Media Futures East Africa Project.

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