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5 opportunities and challenges facing African newsrooms

byChris Roper
Jun 04 in Digital journalism
Newsroom

What is the state of media in Africa, and where is it going? The challenge of such a question is that, as much as Africa is not a country, “the media” is not a thing.

Last month in Benin, I sought to provide answers to this question during a keynote at Osiwa’s “Free, Quality and Independent Media Partners’ Forum” for West African media. There were five takeaways relevant to most African media, although the degree to which they apply to local environments will differ.

1.     African media are inextricably linked to global media.

The global digital media economy means there is no media situation that is altogether peculiar to Africa. African media is inextricably linked to the global media ecosystem, with the main example being that our industry is as damaged and compromised by the big American internet platforms as the rest of the world’s.

2. New hybrids of technology and journalism allow African journalists to tell stories in new ways.

The most pervasive of the new ways of storytelling is data-driven journalism, the (relatively) new face of evidence-based and investigative journalism. But the list is long, with strong examples of robot, sensor, drone and forensic journalism, and with much potential in the fields of artificial intelligence and immersive journalism, such as virtual and augmented reality.

It’s tempting be cynical toward the juxtaposition of these tech-heavy forms of journalism with the strained resources of newsrooms. And it’s true that, if you’re struggling to get readers to pay for news, it’s a difficult ask to invest in journalism innovations that in some cases haven’t yet brought our audiences along with them. But at the very least, data-driven journalism is going to be crucial to our survival as newsrooms.

3. The war on truth is vital to African newsrooms.

We’ve all been indoctrinated into the jargon of the war on truth — so much so that many of us subsume all the complexities and incongruities of the various misinformation campaigns under the useless fake news rubric. But like all wars, the actual skirmishes and battles are just the front line. Wars are also won and lost in the supply lines and logistics, and it’s here that journalism is most disadvantaged: where revenue, resources and (possibly most damaging of all) relationships are whittled away by the changing face of our industry, exacerbated by the changes in audience consumption and enabled by the big internet platforms.

4. Trust in news is essential to the success of the industry.

Social media platforms facilitate misinformation and the spread of bad journalism, and render news brands anonymous. According to a recent study, fewer than half of readers (47 percent) typically recognized the news brand that had created the content when they access news in Facebook, Twitter or Google.

Additionally, publishers see platforms as the primary threat to their success in 2018. The second threat to their success is the inability to innovate; and of course, these two are intertwined. Innovating costs a lot of money, and in a world where Facebook and Google attracted 84 percent of global spending in 2017, there’s not a lot of excess budget that media houses can invest in new ventures designed to change that number in their favor.

Without loyalty and trust, it’s going to be very difficult for African media to build a revenue model. We need people to give us money, because without money, governments and corporations can either buy us or break us. We need people to pay so that the press can be free. Forty-four percent of publishers see subscriptions as an important source of digital revenue in 2018, and the problem of finding new revenue is even more pressing in developing countries. According to ICFJ’s recent survey of technology in global newsrooms, about 70 percent of newsrooms in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Latin America and the Middle East identify developing new revenue streams as a major challenge, compared with 44 percent of North American ones.

5. Creating and nurturing a deeper relationship with audiences can reverse the erosion of trust.

We need to own our data. Sixty-two percent of publishers globally said the most important initiative for their newsrooms is “improving data capacity.” This doesn’t just mean your ability to understand big data, but to grow and harvest your own. Newspapers’ big error wasn’t giving away their content for free online: it was when they gave away their readers for free, and that is more a function of hubris than happenstance. Creating and nurturing a deeper relationship with audiences is the next battleground for media, and that’s where many media houses will win or lose.

Data-driven journalism can be a Trojan horse for this, because so much of it is about getting readers to become part of the story, both as contributors to the story evolution, and as producers of data. The war on truth is one that African news organizations can, and must, win. The opportunities afforded by digital journalism can be more powerful than the threats, but seizing them requires a commitment to taking back control of our relationships with our readers. Embracing a data-centric strategy is a vital part of that.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Steve Bowbrick