Media convergence in Africa

March 8, 2017

Convergence of digital content and communications systems is changing face of African media. The old order of television, print and radio remains significant and common, but the emergence of a new world of social and mobile media is unstoppable.Convergence is not so helpful when it comes to unpredictable policy challenges that are created by disruptive and far-reaching change. Dislocation of content has led to proliferation of services resulting to fragmented audiences and advertising. The informal media economy receives little attention from government policy-makers across the continent and the sector is unregulated, untaxed, and unlicensed, and without doubt this is one reason why it is also an extraordinarily dynamic, market-driven, externally oriented sector.Social media is perceived as playing a crucial role in political activism in Africa with latest being Kenya which will hold elections in August this year, is witnessing fierce online exchanges between government and opposition supporters. Mostly because of the growing number of Twitter and Facebook users in Kenya, the role of social media in distributing information means that devices such as smartphones are crucial for political activists. However the key reason why certain particular issues becomes mega-spectacles is because they are taken up by mainstream media and not necessarily because blogger or originator of the story is popular online.In Africa, mainstream media still plays an important role in distributing activists’ messages to the public, despite the increase in social media usage.

On most occasions, activists like to see wide-ranging media coverage of their causes not only because mainstream media reports reach a wider audience, but also because of the authority that they afford certain issues. Mainstream media reports can give the concerns pursued by activists greater legitimacy, particularly if they make news headlines and become the daily news event.In Africa today, the largely separate realms of social media and mainstream media are fast becoming connected into one large news cycle as a result of two forms of media convergence specifically the convergence of traditional media and new social media platforms, and the convergence of monopolised media and smaller forms of alternative or citizen geared media. This pattern means social media is now an important part of how events become news. It also gives activists greater ability to get their issue into the news cycle via easily accessible social media platforms. But there is also the risk that news distribution through social media will soon be engulfed by the powerful forces who own and control the mainstream media.The mainstream media in Africa is owned by either the government or prominent businessmen and politicians. Africans describe it as a ‘cartel’. A key challenge faced by Africa’s media owners is the uncertainty surrounding the future of media, particularly print media.There is decreasing circulation of newspapers in Africa just like it has happened in the western world. The future of newspapers is as bleak as it is in developed world. Africa is just slow to react, and soon it will be all online and very different. However there will always be a market for news, but in what platform Africans will see in the future is the puzzle.

A recent study shows that television is the most popular medium for African audiences with 57 per cent having watched any television station in the past 30 days compared with 12 per cent of respondents reading any newspaper in the last 30 days. The reality of convergence in Africa is making all moving pictures and sound, whether TV or internet sources, one and the same thing.African countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt have already moved to an era where major media companies no longer specialise solely in print, radio or television. The media executives in those countries understand that their survival is dependent on their ability to combine traditional news content with content from new media platforms and sites, including social media commentaries and videos captured from phones. While most media executives previously thought social media platforms were purely for networking purposes, media companies now consider such tools to be essential in the dissemination of news and commentaries.The arrival of new platforms has forced media companies to diversify.Nation Media Group, the largest in East and Central Africa for example, was transformed in late 2016 to better reflect the wide range of news brands it owns across multiple countries, multiple platforms and multiple news cycles. The company’s media convergence includes broadcast, print, digital, online, social and mobile media, events and an online news portal, mobile phone application called VidTv app that is available on Android and iOS as well as on the web.In Uganda, New Vision Group, the country’s largest media business, has an e-newspaper and website where readers can share the paper’s news stories through various social media and other links. It is well known that the media entities in Uganda are advocating for more open debate in Ugandan society, fuelled by social media by creating public debate. Ugandans can give their view on all topics and we give space for that view so they can freely express their thinking. The better way to solve Uganda’s hidden problems is to try to discuss them in an open and transparent way.

In Africa, media convergence is more than simply a technological shift. New media platforms are helping push journalism in new directions and have the potential to open the space for public debate on social and political issues. On online news sites, readers can comment directly underneath articles. In the online edition of some newspapers, readers can comment via their Twitter or Facebook profile. In the past, readers usually commented using an online alias name but now, social media profiles normally include a photo and various other information or affiliations. The result is a more credible commentary in the mainstream press, but also an indication that many Africans are happy to be more public in their opinions through mainstream news.With or without media convergence, there will always be a market for news in Africa. However, I can bet my neck that not a single person knows how the market will evolve. The rapid and complex ways in which media convergence is transforming African news and commentary makes controlling information more difficult. The more voices and platforms through which people can express opinions and disseminate content, the more difficult it may be for elites to control the agenda.Undoubtedly, citizen journalism has found ways to circumvent attempts at censorship and control that is very common in African countries. Africans have become used to expressing their opinions online and not even state machinery, policies will stop it. Days of media cartels attempting to hinder freedom of expression through cartelisation and convergence are long gone. In the battle for the African media market, the convergent media companies whose business model allows for the greatest freedom of expression will definitely end up being the ones which makes the most money.

Contador Harrison