The journalism Africa need
Late Thursday night twenty years ago almost this week,I was standing on the footpath in a seedy part of my neighborhood, waiting to buy one of local school weekly magazine copies as it rolled off the giant Presses after I had just written my first by-lined story on the middle page of a local school newspaper then regarded as the best in the market, and as an ambitious young writer I was too impatient to wait until the next morning to see it in print.My blud Jennifer and Rhiannon made me feel like a piece of shit when they jokingly told me my article wasn’t published and should go to the dormitory and swallow the bitter pills.Rhiannon a brunette from Shepparton is now working in a local bankster while describes me a blogster.In those school days, every Thursday around midnight, the corridors outside the office building overflowed with people who came to buy an early copy of the paper with its hundreds of classified ads for students shopping list products like bathing shampoo, tooth pastes,sprays among others. To see them pick up their school magazine that night, keeping the classified ads and dumping the rest into rubbish bins placed along the street by school students, was a dose of reality for an idealistic writer.The incongruity in that business model that my former school had adopted, profits from ads was bankrolling the young writers like Contador Harrison that was vital to a functioning system of learning that took several decades to play out.
The “school magazine business model”, as it’s now derisively known, has imploded. People no longer line the corridors outside school presses at night to be the first to see the ads of the latest lingerie or shoes. The internet has poached most of School magazine classified advertising. The money that financed quality writing for decades is disappearing, with no likely replacement.The story of how quality writing and in particular journalism fell victim to a commercial market failure has been known to those of us interested in the industry for years, but it has largely been withheld from Africa consumers of journalism because the mainstream media has conspired to censor and spin the truth.Unlike ‘Land down under’ where I sharpened and polished my skills, Africa’s newspapers of record have deliberately ignored the story of their own decline, and its impact on their own readers and the health of society, instead of covering it as they would the decline of any other important industry or profession.Local newspapers that I have come across have shown a deep reluctance to disclose or even explain that large-scale commercial journalism has become unviable, and no one has yet found a formula to subsidize “public trust” journalism in the way local magazine advertising did back in my school days.
For Sub Saharan Africa, the story is more significant than just the demise of an industry business model.In a small robust democracies across the continent with relatively little commercial quality journalism, it has the makings of a civic catastrophe. That’s because the serious journalism of influence in Africa, apart from the government-funded newspapers,Television and Radio stations resides mainly in private media companies. Between them, privately owned newspapers, radio and Tv stations provide most of Africa’s coverage of politics, justice, economics, business, science, health, welfare, public policy, international affairs, arts, culture and ideas.For most of their existence privately owned papers have been pillars of the Africa democratic infrastructure, sitting alongside the parliament, the bureaucracy and the courts as the enforcement agencies of public accountability and scrutiny. As bankster brunette reminded me last weekend, private media companies in both developed and developing world are the ones who have done the shoe-leather reporting, invested in thoughtful analysis, exposed corruption and maladministration, campaigned on issues they believed in and undertaken the expensive and risky investigative reporting that has held power to account.But that is slowly disappearing and we may need to re-invent journalism in regions like Africa to safeguard the legacy of independently owned media companies.