Dr Njoki Chege is Director of the Innovation Centre at the Aga Khan University. The Centre works to enhance media viability in East Africa, providing co-working space and training for the next generation of media entrepreneurs, innovators and leaders. She has written for the Nation Media Group for over nine years, being a Daily Nation op-ed columnist for much of that time. She is a mentor in the Bettina Fund – Empowering women in media programme, and founded the Arise Mentorship Program for young Kenyans in 2021. On World Press Freedom Day 2022, she shares her observations on the media industry today and how the Media Innovation Centre can help prepare journalists for the future.

After three media and communications degrees, what are your research interests?

I specialised in media economics. My research was on how Kenyan newspapers have responded to digital disruption. Most practise what you call organisational ambidexterity, where they are still pursuing their previous print advertising business models, but also very aggressively seeking out opportunities in digital media. There was a lot of effort to understand how technology could impact their business and the opportunities that came with that. The study has informed a lot of work that we are doing here at the Innovation Centre.

Which of their response strategies have worked well?

The most important was partnerships. Editors told me that content creation partnerships with other organisations were becoming quite profitable. From a content perspective, lifestyle content, long shelf-life features and in-depth analytical stories were very successful. There’s still a critical mass of the audience that appreciates a good long read of 3,000 words.

An important trend is the ubiquitous use of technology. It’s becoming very apparent that the future business success of news media organisations across the world is going to be pegged on technology. Digital disruption has changed our consumption habits and now our news media. About 70 percent of editors across the world have said that artificial intelligence (AI) is going to be critical for their business bottom line in the next year or so, but only about 30 percent are implementing it. There are a lot of untapped opportunities and that’s where the Innovation Centre is coming in.

How is AI affecting the media?

First, it’s being used for audience acquisition. A lot of news organisations today have some form of paid content strategy, whether a paywall or a membership. AI is being used to understand audience consumption habits and to understand the potential for audience conversion from non-paid to paying. Second, it is being used to place stories, personalising consumption for different areas. AI can help understand audience consumption habits, for example, knowing what story is performing well in a region. Now editors are inside the reader’s head.

But there’s also a deep-seated fear of technology, where we’ve seen AI being used to write or edit stories. This fear is unfounded because journalists have not yet taken the time to fully understand the benefits of AI, such as how it can be used to automate routine reporting and introduce more depth and analysis to stories. But another critical concern is the ethics of AI and the fact that a lot of this technology is being implemented without human oversight.

We’ve seen AI being misused in political contexts, for example, in the United States and to some extent in Kenya. Particular audiences are fed with news and information that appeals to their values and opinions, thereby creating echo chambers and filter bubbles. But before we debate this, I think it’s important for us to create awareness about the basics of AI. We need to train more journalists, editors, boards and executive committees on the business case of AI. And then we can navigate the ethical tightropes that arise from its use.

What interested you about directing the Media Innovation Centre?

I’ve worked as a journalist for 10 years at two of the most dynamic and largest newsrooms in East Africa, the Standard and then the Nation Media Group. And I know how it feels to work in an environment where there’s a lot of uncertainty; we came in just when the disruption was happening. And I’ve seen newspapers, TV stations, radio stations being closed down because they were not sustainable. So, this is personal for me, I’ve been an insider for 10 years. I know the zigs and zags of a newsroom, I know the politics of sharing resources and understand what constitutes a good innovation versus a bad innovation. I think it’s my responsibility to ensure that I’m contributing towards a much more digital and technology-based industry that provides high-quality journalism for Kenyans and East Africans.

In the next three to five years, the Innovation Centre is pivoting towards more technology-based innovations, supporting local journalists to understand the value of technology in their work. In the same way that Africa has leapfrogged in terms of Internet connectivity, it’s an opportunity for news video organisations to also leapfrog on utilising technology for the media business. We want to be a centre of excellence in technology for journalism in Africa, helping journalists, media managers and leaders to understand how they can leverage technology for their bottom line. Because news media organisations, especially in the private sector, are profit-making entities and good journalism does not come cheap.

How independent is the media in Kenya?

Depends on who you ask… but I think we need to appreciate how far we have come. This is not the 80s, when journalists used to be banned from parliament. So there’s been progress but I think there’s still a lot more that can be done. We need to start thinking about business models beyond advertising, particularly government advertising. Some journalists say there’s been interference from governments in terms of the stories that are published. We have some very senior government officials, and corporate moguls, owning news media organisations.

So what does that mean for business and economic news? There is still a lot of harassment of journalists, trolling on Twitter, Facebook etc, especially for political reasons. Criticism is an occupational risk for journalists. But what we are seeing is a lot more personalised, often gender-based harassment, that goes beyond their story and is bordering on character assassination. We need to provide, for women journalists especially, more tools and skills to handle this and safe spaces for them to be able to unburden themselves.

Some of this harassment is bundled with disinformation. That’s an assault on the media. The Internet has presented a lot of challenges for journalists, from fake news to the misuse of AI by the big tech companies to online harassment. It’s a very exciting time to be a journalist but also a very challenging time.

What role can mentorship play in addressing these challenges?

At the base of the pyramid, our universities are churning out thousands of very talented female journalists. I see a lot of women coming in as interns and cub reporters. But somewhere down the line we lose them to other fields, the corporate world or academia. And when you go all the way to the top, you find just a handful of women. I signed up as a mentor in the Bettina Fund mentorship programme for young women in media because I see the need to create a pipeline of young, talented, high-capacity women who are going to go up the ranks; to give them the skills and the support that they need to achieve some of their greatest ambitions.

Because if you look at the setup of our news media, there are also very few women on the executive committees, or as top editors. This lack of diversity trickles down to the products and the content that news media organisations produce. On a personal level I have started a much broader mentorship programme, targeting young people. In Kenya about 76 percent of the population are young people, but we have seen a lot of problems with access to jobs or capital to start their own businesses. I think it’s important that we give young people hope, bringing in fellow mentors to speak to them, and skills, whether in writing or in learning how to rethink their business.

3 May is World Press Freedom Day. Why is independent media important for development?

A free and independent press is the cornerstone of any democracy and the foundation of economic success, mostly because through our free press, we’re able to hold the leadership to account. The public can know what their leaders are up to and that’s a very important thing. In the US studies have shown a direct link between civic engagement and a free and independent press; citizens who have access to free and independent high-quality journalism are more likely to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities such as voting and holding leaders to account.

However, high-quality news is increasingly becoming very expensive to access for most Kenyans. Some of the best journalism, which is capable of shifting the voters’ minds and voting habits, is behind a paywall. I once read an article stating that the lies are free and the truth is behind a paywall, and that is exactly where we’re heading. We do have the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, but we need to support them a lot more to produce high-quality journalism that is freely available. Therefore, this calls for a much broader debate about the role of public media in the country.

We must not sacrifice access to information at the altar of business models. As much as we are thinking about reader revenue strategies, and putting good content behind a paywall, we must also as a country think about supporting public media to support an independent and free press. We must ensure that Kenyan citizens understand that they can access high-quality news for free.

One of the principles on which the Media Innovation Centre is founded is media viability, the capacity of news media organisations to provide high-quality, commercially sustainable journalism. We’ve supported 13 teams of innovators in residence. These are independent journalists providing high-quality news, leveraging technology and also doing stories around minorities, young people and women. All these audiences that have been chronically underserved have provided a significant opportunity for our innovators to create content around. And we think that in doing that we are supporting a free press and contributing towards a much stronger democracy.

This article was first published at akdn.org by Lucas Cuervo Moura

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