How technology is shaping journalism in East Africa
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2019/04/how-technology-is-shaping-journalism-in-east-africa/
By Alex Taremwa
In the words of the late author Norman Mailer, “Some of us, finding that we were not smart enough to become lawyers, talented enough to become novelists or with hands too shaky to perform operations, became journalists.”
Globally, journalism has gone through significant 21st century transformations but East African media stands as the most threatened. This is somewhat due to substandard journalism training and the controlled political environment, but mostly, the digital disruption.
The digital age has had a considerable impact on the journalism profession. The media eco-system is constantly changing with new technologies and mediums re-defining the relationship between the news media and the public. As American scholar and author Mark Briggs noted, learning the skill and technology is the easy part. Recognizing we are part of a new information eco-system is the steeper hill to climb.
In East Africa today, journalism fails in four major areas: content creation, distribution, monetization and coping with the ever-changing consumption habits of the audience. Showbiz and celebrity websites in Uganda and East Africa at large have more visitors that mainstream media. Kenya’s most popular website – Tuko – is a purely entertainment site that has almost double the number of visitors of East Africa’s highest circulation newspaper, Daily Nation.
In Kenya, the Tuko entertainment site was among those who “broke the Internet” talking about a controversial tourist campaign focused on curvy women while an issue of serious national impact – reviving a national airline – has struggled to gather traction. Mainstream media have had to develop separate websites for viral content in order to compete.
The present era of dynamic new media is being referred to as a golden age of storytelling – the element that stimulates human interest and emotion but taking advantage of the contemporary disruption and the acceleration of technology to tell better stories and connect with more audiences.
Daily Nation – East and Central Africa’s biggest-selling paper – has seen its sales drop from 160,378 copies a day in 2009 to 105,000 by December 2018. It is even severe in Uganda where the highest-selling daily is a local language newspaper (Bukedde), and the two oldest, mainstream presses of the government-owned New Vision and independent Daily Monitor cannot reach a combined 50,000 copies sold.
While doing my undergraduate degree at Uganda Christian University (UCU), I made it my business to write letters to the then Head of Department (and now dean), Professor Monica Chibita, asking her to include a digital aspect in the course curriculum. During that 2012-2016 time period, the role social media would play in a newsroom was unthinkable.
When renowned Kenyan investigative journalist, John Allan Namu visited my class in early April 2019, he said that the Daily Nation had, at first, thought itself too big to join the microblog platform, Twitter.
Today, social media provides not just jobs but also critical insights about fans and the potential audience through listening, testing and engagement. In today’s world, each social media user is a small media owner. They don’t need a newspaper to broadcast content when they have Facebook Live, Instagram and Snap Chat.
Some public figures like Kenya’s President H.E Uhuru Kenyatta have more online following than most Kenyan media houses. Like most of the world’s high-profile people, he isn’t fully reliant on traditional media to deliver his messages.
With Google, Amazon and Facebook dominating almost 80% of the advertisement revenue online, turning good content into money in East Africa and the world over is a daily preoccupation of media executives, academia, and journalists alike.
Content creation costs money, and distribution platforms are expensive to support and maintain. Therefore, knowing how to monetize content and distribution is crucial. Just as the New York Times has found the goose that lays its golden eggs in on-line subscriptions and digital journalism, media in East Africa is yet to crack the puzzle on whether we go the NYT way or adopt micro-payments, a la carte purchases or just hang onto the advertisement model.
Without a doubt, the multi-mediality that digital has brought to journalism is impacting for readers/viewers/listeners who get a full experience of the story beyond written words and photos. This revolution includes virtual and augmented reality, 360• video that most developed newsrooms such as the BBC, the Associated Press, the NYT and the Washington Post and Reuters are adopting.
Technology is increasing pluralism and making it hard for governments to stifle the freedom of the press. The watchdog role of journalism is even stronger with new digital research tools. If implemented with understanding and adherence to what journalism was designed to do, the content is richer with better visualisation and data interpretation with an audience that is no longer the passive consumer but an active player.
On the flipside, social media has eroded the gatekeeping role of journalism, killed the element of surprise in breaking news and made it possible for even those not schooled in the practice of journalism to join our space and compete for the same eyeballs as the professionals. Fake news, disinformation and click baiting need to be combated. It is easier for trained journalists to become lazy and less credible copycats who violate intellectual property by pasting other people’s versions of news. Professional journalists need to invest time and understanding into new tools such as Google Earth and crowdsourcing.
As Uganda’s Daily Monitor Editor Daniel Kalinaki once noted, it’s still true that journalists need to invest in public interest, relevant and solutions-oriented journalism. The alternative to this is to ask the last journalist to switch off the lights when they leave the newsroom.
Alex Taremwa is a native Ugandan currently pursuing a Masters in Digital Journalism at Aga Khan University and a Uganda Christian University (UCU) Mass Communication graduate. He also is the editor of Uganda’s Matooke Republic.
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