Serious, credible media houses in Africa are riding on a wave of popularity with their readers, listeners and viewers, which editors could not have dreamt of only three months ago. In the midst of the pandemic, the demand for serious news and verified facts has skyrocketed. Essential services, such as media, might be needed now more than ever. But the public doesn’t wonder too much about who foots the bill.
Sales and website page impressions alone don’t pay for salaries, research, printing and distribution, let alone training of journalists. About half of the workforce in newsrooms between Lagos, Addis Ababa and Johannesburg could become redundant within the next six months.
Moussa Aksar, editor-in-chief of L’Événement in Niger’s capital, Niamey, says: “Our situation was bad before Covid-19, but now it’s worse, as we can’t just go online — customers in the Sahel are not that digital.” And Simon Allison, Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, adds that there has been a precipitous drop in advertising because of the economic swipe of the virus — and that the importance of this advertising in terms of keeping media alive is only now dawning on chief executives.
Print media in East Africa has lost up to 50% of its sales since the pandemic started. Many print copies are usually sold to hotels, ministries and parastatals. The televisions and radio stations of Nation Media Group or the Standard Group in Kenya might not suffer as much, yet the newspapers that are behind these media houses are still the cash-cows and, moreover, they form the corporate identity of print and digital alike.
Experts in East Africa already talk about a paradigm shift because Covid-19, in how journalism “is consumed and executed”. Charles Onyango-Obbo, the “grey-haired old man of journalism” in the region, foresees “dramatic changes in the newsrooms in Africa”.
Many media houses might fold. For the ones that survive both the pandemic and its economic effects, there could be an increase in contributions by freelancers and NGOs, who send in text stories, films and audio. But there will be far fewer experienced journalists who can actually edit, direct and initiate stories. There is a justified fear of an increase in the practice of journalists being paid for by politicians and businesspeople, rather than their publishers.
What certainly helps these days is the fact that a few African governments realise the importance of the media. How else could one explain that President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Cabinet in Kenya is asking for expertise on how to aid the survival of the media? Tax-breaks for media houses are being discussed, to be balanced against the advertising fees that the government still owes the publishers. Serious publishers such as the Premium Times in Nigeria are experiencing a big rise in clicks and subscriptions, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the powers that be.
But, moreover, creativity and the ability to improvise are important. Abaas Mpindi, a tech-savvy and innovative young media personality in Uganda, immediately jumped into action to translate coronavirus pandemic prevention messages into 15 local languages, and published guidelines from journalists which have been used even in francophone Africa. And the M&G’s new partner publication, The Continent, is unique in that it is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp, for free. It has already attracted the attention of donors and venture capitalists.
The need to find and finance new ways of information after the pandemic is evident. Serious media is popular, now more than ever, because it separates fact from fiction, and it informs and it stimulates debate. The mid-term perspective for many media houses that survive is an unhealthy increase in donor-funding and donations. This will certainly compromise the independence of some publications. But it still seems a lot better than adapting the Chinese media model, which involves strict government censorship.
The future for journalism on the continent, a vanguard of decolonisation and democratisation, can only be found in innovation, improvisation, and the ability to try something, fail and stand up again. Or, as Aksar in Niamey says: “We need to survive. After all, we are a pillar of democracy.”
Christoph Plate, a long-time Africa correspondent for German media, is director of KAS Media Africa of the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter @ChristophPlate