Independent Media in Africa: Critical Public Interest…

Social media was once seen as the disruption that traditional media needed. It certainly disturbed. Trust in democracies and institutions has declined, misinformation has proliferated, and public debates have turned into boos.

Economically, social media has eroded the business models that have funded public interest journalism – the style of reporting that holds governments to account and informs the public about issues that shape lives and enable debate. (the vital news story that, for reference, brought us Watergate, the world news hacking scandal and the leak of the Pandora Papers).

Without action, we will lose this vital pillar of our democracies, and in some countries it may already be too late.

The disappearance began slowly, almost imperceptibly. Consumers bought fewer newspapers, opting for the convenience of selling online. As consumers moved online, so did the classifieds, the original “rivers of gold” that kept printing presses going and journalists on their respective beats. As revenues fell, savings were made – journalists and editors were usually the first to go, after which print runs were reduced or eliminated entirely.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a further drop in revenue – the global loss of newspaper revenue in 2020 has been estimated at $30 million. As revenues dwindled, audiences flocked to trusted news brands. The BBC won a 20 million more people every weekdelivering a weekly global audience of nearly half a billion adults.

Outlets have also seen unprecedented growth in digital subscriptions. Digital subscribers to The Guardian increased by 43%while Atlantic attracted more than 300,000 new subscribers – three times the number he expected after lifting a paywall.

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After a bumpy start, with audiences looking for opportunities to dodge paywalls, digital subscriptions are helping fill the revenue gap for many media houses. The New York Timesfor example, boasts now 10 million subscribers, with the majority paying for digital products. Above all, the growth in the number of subscribers generates profitability.

Counted subscriptions $1.4 billion of The New York Times $2.1 billion in revenue last year. The FinancialTimeswhich offers a more targeted product, has similar success, with digital journalism revenue equal to all other income streams combined. Western outlets remain bullish on growth. The New York Times at least count 135 million adults in the world are or would be subscribed to an English-language point of sale.

But it’s a different story in low-income countries. Last year, Kenya’s largest newspaper, Daily Nationintroduced one of the first metered paywalls on the continent. With an annual subscription of approximately $7 per yearit’s hard to see how digital subscribers will fill a growing income gap in the short term.

In low- and middle-income countries, consumers don’t have the spare cash to spend on digital subscriptions, even if they cost $7. Lower literacy levels also mean that more people turn to radio and television for news and information. Meta’s attempt to overcome this challenge was to offer a bespoke “Free Basics”, where people could access a limited version of Facebook, as well as other websites, without incurring data charges. Since Facebook is often seen as a major source of misinformation, it’s hard to imagine this leaving the public better informed.

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But it is in low-income countries where a stronger independent media is most vital. Public newspapers and broadcasters are not the answer. While many countries have national news services, they generally lack resources and are seen as propaganda platforms.

In countries with strong and vibrant media sectors like Kenya and Nigeria, journalists often lack the money to travel to press conferences, let alone fund extensive and often expensive investigative reporting.

In countries with weaker media sectors, the impact of journalism is often mitigated by government restrictions. In Tanzania, bloggers are obliged to pay an annual fee $900 registration fee and disclose funders to government. In Ethiopia, the government targets both the national and international press. In May 2022 alone he was expelled The Economist Ethiopia Correspondent and stopped at at least a dozen journalists and private media workers.

And it’s not just in Africa that public service journalism is struggling. Most major independent media in Russia have closed since the start of the war in Ukraine. Even the public broadcaster is not allowed to mention the war. In the absence of accurate and unbiased reports and information, how will Russian citizens hold Vladimir Putin to account?

A little hope

The ongoing evolution among international outlets like The temperature and The Guardian give hope that consumers see the value of paying for reliable information. But, in low- and middle-income countries, often where we need strong media the most, we still have a long way to go before we can find strong revenue streams.

Maintaining a strong public interest medium is not something that should be left to others.

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Consumers have a role to play, paying for and supporting quality and trusted local media where they can. Donors and NGOs, which already support a range of programs, should explore opportunities for collaboration, avoid duplication and improve existing programs. For example, is it worth creating more opportunities for the media to share knowledge and ideas about business models that work, or funding studies to identify new business models that work in low-income and low-income countries? intermediate ?

We must not back down from this challenge. The continued demise of a free and independent press comes at a time of great global disruption. A war in Europe, growing tensions between America and China, and the growing impact of the climate crisis only heighten our need to be more united and informed than ever. DM

Simon Crump is based in Nairobi and has led pan-African communications for a range of international corporate and philanthropic clients including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bloomberg, Hyatt, FSD Africa and British International Investment. He previously worked as a journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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