Africa’s “accountable journalism” funding question

Posted on July 16, 2015 12:16 am

In continuation of yesterday’s The type of Journalism Africa needs, the funding question, the online platforms like blogspot and Tumblr provides fantastic platform for journalism, bringing the reader inside the tent.To the the dismay of old-school media tycoons, removing the power of the gatekeepers to use and abuse their media to influence society. Contador Harrison could be right when he talks about the shiny new business models in digital media.However, what I have failed to explain is that these are shiny new boats compared with the cruise liners that the newspapers once were. When I discuss the “sustainable” business models for print media, am surely referring to the current model of relentless cost-cutting in a race to match the rapid decline in readership and revenues.It is a trend being experienced in developed world in countries like United States of America, United Kingdom, Western Europe, Australia and Japan.The period of uncertainty in Europe around 1500 at the juncture before and immediately after the invention of the printing press,even the revolutionaries couldn’t predict what would happen next and thats a similar scenario we are facing now.

From Gutenberg to Google we have seen the invention, refinement and institutionalization of journalism, supported by an unconventional funding mechanism, that has secured its central place in civilized society for a long time.In South Africa and India,the conversion from broadsheet to tabloid of several newspapers helps cut down the costs because they are printed on smaller presses.Even in African countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya where newspaper business is still vibrant, hundreds of their journalists, including many of the best, have been pushed out the door in the last five years. A research released last month predicts that those mainstream papers in Africa will incur heavy losses from now henceforth and will close their print editions in the next decade or so. I do acknowledges as much I know that at some time in the future, newspapers will be predominantly digital and in some cases digital-only in metropolitan markets,unlike the researcher I can’t say whether it’s three, five or ten years.In my thinking it depends upon print revenue trajectories, but it will happen.Over at the South Africa Print media industry, which loses an estimated $10–15 million annually, there is another kind of business model.

As an American media theorist Clay Shirky wrote in a seminal essay called ‘Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable’ a few years back, Society doesn’t need newspapers. What Africa need is journalism. For more than a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, Africa is going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. When African market shift attention from “save newspapers” to “save society”, the imperative changes from “preserve the current institutions” to “do whatever works”. And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.For the next ten years, journalism in Africa will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 12-year-olds distributing the results. Am one of those who believe many of these models will not work. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.

Of all the Africa’s newspaper companies fighting for survival, few have understood the scale of the challenge posed by the internet. They never saw the size of the looming crisis and never made plans for a worst-case scenario. If they had, the mindset of the whole newspapers business,might have been radically different. African newspaper business owners would have tried new and different strategies to adapt. Some would have failed and some succeeded, but simply acknowledging the dilemma would have made a huge difference to the outcome.Last weekend, a regional media company operating in Africa asked me to develop a report about the company’s business model and future. I spent several hours or so crafting my thoughts, starting with a hypothetical “disastrous scenario”, which I suggested could result from a large migration of mainstream advertising to the internet based platforms.My key thoughts are that if the management rated the risk of such a scenario at any more than 12%, it should take decisive action. I plan to explain to the directors that the financial success of their business will be determined by effectiveness of quality journalism.When it comes to the question of who will pay for “accountable journalism”, newspaper owners need to understand the importance of investing in well-resourced journalism to protect the existing systems of democracies. Me think that what happens next will profoundly affect journalism and societies we live in.

Contador Harrison