Columnists

Allow the media to thrive and lift all for fast growth

Summary

  • The newspapers have long warned of how falling advertising revenue, fewer audiences, and ferocious and free online competition was pushing many outlets to the wall.
  • Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and almost overnight many of the perennial challenges media companies have been grabbling with, turned into big problems.
  • As advertisers pulled out, newspapers became thinner and in some cases stopped coming all together.

Kenya’s vibrant newspaper sector is under threat. Within a short period of time, exclusive print news is being shared online. Couple that with some of us finding clever ways to even bypass international outlets paywalls. Our newspapers are having a rough day, daily.

The newspapers have long warned of how falling advertising revenue, fewer audiences, and ferocious and free online competition was pushing many outlets to the wall.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and almost overnight many of the perennial challenges media companies have been grabbling with, turned into big problems. As advertisers pulled out, newspapers became thinner and in some cases stopped coming all together.

With dwindling advertising revenue, news outlets had to make tough decisions. In Kenya, more than 300 journalists have lost their jobs, journalists in Nigeria have seen salaries slashed and a restructure at the BBC has seen more than 500 reporters sent home.

At the same time as advertising dollars dwindled, news organisations reported record online traffic and subscriptions. The rush that we saw for toilet paper was happening for the media too. It is always hard to get reliable data, but The Guardian saw 114m monthly views in the US in March, an increase of over 86% from February. While the US-based magazine, The Atlantic, recorded 87 million users and signed up 36,000 new subscribers.

With our world turning upside down, our thirst for knowledge, facts and understanding grew and we initially turned to those we trusted. But, as our patience waned and the pandemic rolled on, other news sources come into our orbit. There were videos on Facebook, urging us to drink more hot tea; WhatsApp messages from relatives that argued the whole thing was planned.

We have been bombarded with so much information, misinformation, disinformation and downright fake news, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell what is true and what isn’t.

Just as you and I look to media to help make decisions, so does the business community. Providing decision-makers with access to real-time knowledge, data and insights has become even more important. Many local and international decision-makers look to local outlets, including Business Daily, to understand the local business climate. It isn’t a coincidence that countries with strong, reputable media with some independence from the government are often those investors flock to first. That’s why ensuring Kenya’s media sector remains strong, will be an important lever in helping our recovery from the pandemic.

To be clear, this piece isn't about having people buy more newspapers or turning away from digital media. Newspapers are struggling and more news will be delivered to us online, we can’t arrest this change.

It is about realising the important role a strong, trusted media sector plays in our daily lives and that our habit of seeking out cheap news must end. Covid-19 has become a catalyst for change across many sectors and now that we've seen what could happen when we lose our media sector, we must fight hard to ensure it doesn't happen.

The problems facing the media sector are not new and there is no easy solution. In the short term, we are likely to see further consolidation and rationalisation of outlets and delivery methods.

The New York Times is often cited as an example of a traditional media outlet that has managed to adapt to the changing environment. Its subscription business contributes three times the revenue of its advertising business and has been a significant tool in helping the business ride through the early stages of the pandemic. The Times’ approach has been to invest in its journalism and open new revenue streams, including newsletters and podcasts.

Outlets on the continent are pivoting their businesses too. Nation Media Group has accelerated its moves to reinvent itself as a digital brand. While in South Africa, the Mail and Guardian introduced The Continent, a weekly newspaper highlighting strong stories from across Africa. The paper is free and shared via WhatsApp.

These are all positive steps and highlights the ingenuity of outlets who understand their audiences and what will work for their businesses.

We are also seeing some governments get involved to address perceived failures in the market. In Australia, the government is looking to legislate to make companies like Google and Facebook pay news outlets for content. As expected, Facebook and Google are digging in deep.

We also need to reflect on what our role is as audiences. Are we supporting our media sector through subscriptions and defending and championing our journalists who are doing good work? Or are we looking for the cheaper options when it comes to accessing the information, we need to make our decisions and understand what is happening around us? As they say: cheap is often expensive.