Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The mistakes donors make when funding African media

 

 

COMMENT

In April, famed South Sudanese journalist, Alfred Taban, passed away in Kampala, Uganda. A former BBC correspondent, Taban was among the first reporters to cover the genocide in Darfur. On a continent, which continues to struggle with corruption, poor governance, and political instability, African journalists, such as Taban, are critical in holding governments accountable.

Yet it is becoming more and more difficult to be an African journalist, thanks to both widespread hostility from governments and increasing financial pressures.

Donors play a crucial role in extending a lifeline to Africa’s independent media However, despite their best intentions, donors often make missteps in funding African media projects, undermining the media sector that they are trying to help.

Here are three common mistakes donors make in funding Africa’s media projects.

Funding is spent on trainings and workshops

Donors tend to spend their funds on short-term, cosmetic interventions, which fail to address the systemic constraints that beset Africa’s media. Just as development organizations can overly focus on capacity building initiatives, donors channel the majority of their efforts into trainings and workshops, believing that African reporters need to hone their journalism skills. But this is often not the case. Most African journalists know what constitutes good reporting; they speak with multiple sources, support claims with primary sources, and provide critical analysis.

Whereas the quality of reportage has been underwhelming, it is not as a result of the lack of education on the part of journalists. What undermines local journalism is the lack of finances and unviable business models, which subjects most outlets to the control of their patrons. At The ScoopNG, where I am an investor and editorial team member, we dropped an advertiser who sought editorial control and declined several offers to publish stories in exchange for payment.

The vast majority of African media platforms are not as fortunate as TheScoopNG (although maintaining this stance has placed the platform in a situation where it is cash-strapped).

Underfunded media platforms in Africa are unable to pay their reporters who depend on their sources to pay them for positive coverage. Brown envelope journalism is so deeply entrenched that, in Nigeria for example, most newspapers do not pay their staff. Instead, they expect their journalists to earn a living by soliciting bribes from their sources. Underpaid and crunched for time, local journalists often reprint press releases or report stories citing one source. As a result, stories in the local press become regurgitative, poorly written, unimaginative, and biased, undermining the ambitious aims of journalistic rigor workshops hope to accomplish.

Funding is project-based

If donors fund Africa media projects beyond training, the scope of the financing is project-based, which curbs local media houses’ ability to plan for the future. From a donor’s perspective, tying funding to six-month or one-year projects, for example on elections or a specific anti-corruption campaign, makes good budgetary sense. Not only does it hold local media houses accountable for the spending, it is easy to measure funding outcomes. Lacking strong business models, some African media outlets depend on these grants to stay financially afloat.

But this dependency has a negative impact on the long-term health of local reporting. Journalists in Africa are sometimes derided as “professional workshop attendees”; if that is the case, then editors have turned into professional grant writers. Chasing short-term funding and filling out grant applications every few months reduces the amount of time that editors have for setting the editorial agenda of their media platforms.

Local media platforms become stunted, and are not able to plan and build for the future by recruiting an experienced team; expanding editorial; and tackling ambitious stories that serve the public good. Donors like Open SocietyOmidiyarBloomberg and Ford Foundation should look to provide general support for African newsrooms with a focus on building sustainable business models.

Donor-driven agendas

Finally, donors tend to finance investigative reporting that concentrates on a few subject matters, which often reflect stories that westerners find important. Donors gravitate to the same type of stories, such as hunger in the Horn of Africa, or ivory trafficking in East Africa, or government corruption in West Africa, which crowds out slower moving stories that take longer to produce and are not considered as relevant outside the continent. Stories that focus on government policy, the environment or health care are often ignored. Nonetheless, there are glimmers of hope: non-traditional media donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have helped to finance health reporting through outlets like Premium Times (Nigeria) and Bhekisisa (South Africa), but this is more the exception than the rule. Others have argued that this also makes newsrooms into advocacy institutions.

While important, a media landscape that solely awards, funds, or publishes a narrowly defined set of stories incentivises journalists to pursue incomplete, and distorted coverage.

While press freedom has made gains in some African countries, it is deteriorating in others. To support journalists, donors should reassess how they have been financing media on the continent. Donor energies and funds should address the systemic problem of unpaid and under-resourced reporters by helping independent media platforms create sustainable business models. Donors can also provide grants and fellowships to these platforms that are on a rolling basis and adhere to milestones. Donor mandates that have a larger scope would allow for comprehensive reform and lead to greater impact and community ownership in Africa’s media.

Adewunmi Emoruwa is an investor in African media startups democratising access to information, including thescoopng.com and The Election Network. He is the lead strategist at Gatefield, a public strategy group. 

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Adewunmi Emoruwa
Adewunmi Emoruwa
Adewunmi Emoruwa is the lead strategist at Gatefield, a public strategy and media group.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

South Africa’s mothballed ‘supermall-ification’ sets strip malls up for success

Analysts agree that the country has enough malls and that, post-Covid, the convenience of local centres lure customers

Mabuza’s Russian jaunts and the slippery consequences of medical tourism

For more than five years the deputy president has remained steadfast in his right to travel abroad to receive medical treatment

More top stories

Former US secretary of state Colin Powell dies aged 84

The 84-year-old died as a result of complications from Covid-19

Kunming Declaration on biodiversity: A show of political will that...

More than 100 countries pledged to better protect nature at UN biodiversity talks last week

Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine turned down over HIV concerns

The vaccine might increase the risk of vaccinated males getting HIV, says SA’s health products regulatory authority

New electronic waste management regulations will take effect in November

Producers and importers of electronic goods will be legally responsible for end-of-life management of their products from 5 November
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×