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New Voices in Africa - Where is Covid-19 Taking the Media Industry?

ARTICLES - 28 September 2020

After the first two chapters of our series on the impact of Covid-19 on various sectors across the African continent, we look at the media industry. Initially threatened by the internet, press and media have since embraced the new normal dictated by the online revolution, by investing in digital platforms. This phenomenon is further accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis: a report on South Africa’s print and digital publishing industry reports a 76% increase in online news site traffic. 2019 French-African Young Leader, Landry Mugisha, Founder and Editor in chief at www.akeza.net, a Burundi-based communications expert, explains that beyond the immediate assistance the media industry needs to face the Covid-19 crisis, a new business model based on subscription and membership has to be developed. 

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the business of press and media has been devastating. The imposition of lockdowns in many parts of the world and African countries harmed the media business in several aspects. The loss of advertisement revenue brought several industry players to drastic decisions such as reducing personnel or staff layoffs, cutting off and sometimes simply suspending print operations (due to low circulation, hence low sales), downsizing operations, etc.

However, long before Covid-19, the business model that has sustained press and media for around two centuries was on a free fall. Revenue from advertising has been on decline for years, ever since the appearance of mainstream internet and its production and distribution of content. Newspapers lost circulation to news websites traffic. Television has been facing the incommensurable growth of social media platforms content and advertisement (Youtube, Facebook, and more recently Tik Tok, etc), plus streaming competition (Netflix, Amazon prime), while radio has been facing fierce competition from podcasts. All this has also brought about a change in audience preferences. 

As Covid-19 hit the traditional media industry, online platforms became the new norm for journalists and media players stuck at home.

Rather than being the source of this strain that can be observed in the industry, Covid-19 has been a catalyzer. It has significantly accelerated the system’s downfall. What could possibly be the way forward? How could industry players get the media business back on track and make sure it has a viable and sustainable business model? 

The Inevitable Online Migration

Online publishing ending up as the solution is obviously a paradox. At first, the threat to the traditional media business model came from the internet. 

Nevertheless, while key media players tried to preserve their traditional streams of income, they have been embracing the new ways dictated by the online revolution, investing in digital platforms with the latest technology. As Covid-19 hit the traditional media industry, online platforms became the new norm for journalists and media players stuck at home. 

We learn from various parts of the world that online news and information has taken the lead ever since the pandemic reached its peaks. A South African print and digital publishing media industry report recounts a suspension of magazines printing, a decline in retail copy sales of newspapers and a notable increase in online news site traffic, with audiences growing by as much as 76%. On a global scale, as a result of lockdowns in many parts of the globe, streaming giant Netflix gained 26 million new subscribers in the first two quarters of 2020 alone, as opposed to the 28 million subscribers that it gained in all of 2019. 

Just like the music industry in the early 2000s, it appears the media industry will have to change. Hence, it is inevitable for media practitioners to acquire strong digital skills and for media outlets to invest heavily in digital platforms and a strong online presence so they can embark on a full digital transformation. 

A Problem Called Revenue Stream 

Though traditional media has moved part of its production and broadcast online, online news still has to prove its value as far as revenue generation is concerned. Online advertising goes mostly to tech giants such as Facebook, Google/Youtube. The future looks even tougher as internet advertising spent outside the duopoly Facebook/Google is predicted to fall by 7.2%

As far as Africa is concerned, it is interesting to note that for digital transformation to occur in media, there will have to be a bridging of the gap in the internet coverage on the continent in general and some countries in particular.

Data show us that 60% of Africans don’t have access to the internet.

The Council on Foreign Relations reported that in May 2019, 83% of Kenyans, 56% of South African and 60% of Nigerians had access to the internet. But those are the exceptions.  

Data show us that 60% of Africans don’t have access to the internet. In Burundi, despite the country being fully covered by a fiber optic network, only 10% of the population has access to the internet. This makes it difficult for online publications to stay sustainable. Such is the case for Akeza.net, which owe 100% of their survival to online traffic and the advertisement revenue it generates. 

Other structural issues such as the cost of the internet and access to electricity add to the limiting facts to the online transformation. Several rural areas have limited access to the internet if no access at all. 

How then, in this regard, can African countries join the connected economy in general and for the press in particular, if the continent is not fully connected in the first place? 

With more Africans connected, the media can ensure a transitional shift to a digital-based source of revenue.

It is true that Africans using the internet regularly have quadrupled in numbers over the last 10 years: 40% in 2019, when they were only 10% in 2010. Provided efforts to ensure growth in internet coverage and connectivity are made not only by African governments but also international partners and donors, the next 10 years could give a completely different face of Africa as far as the digital economy is concerned.

This is the same audience and clients the media industry would aim to tap into. With more Africans connected, the media can ensure a transitional shift to a digital-based source of revenue. If not, African media will continue to operate in a fragile environment whereas in times of crisis, they just collapse and close business. 

"Netflix, and other streaming services, along with YouTube will have seen audience growth during the lockdown. This is symptomatic of what may happen in the news media generally, that is that the stronger participants in the industry become even stronger at the expense of the weaker," a South African print and digital publishing media industry report by PR Newswire says. 

A Harmed Sector, Media Professionals in Trouble

Since the first cases of Covid-19 in Sub-Saharan Africa in early March 2020, the media has continuously made essential contributions when it comes to informing citizens about the development of the disease, raising awareness about protective measures, uncovering misinformation, countering rumors and promoting the sharing of good practices. Nevertheless, the media and journalists are facing troubles of their own, with no assistance or support whatsoever

Nation Media Group, the largest independent media house in East and Central Africa with operations in print, broadcast and digital media, has implemented cuts in salaries since early May. It was the case for journalists and staff working for five leading media groups in Kenya who saw cuts in salary go up to 50% due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in countries that did not impose a lockdown on citizens, things did not improve for media houses. In Burundi for example, corporations stopped advertising, while the top management adopted working from home. Revenues extracted from advertisement went almost to zero. The Ministry of Health called for a patriotic stance. The broadcasting and spread of Covid-19 security measures were not a paid service in any media platform. 

The challenge was similar in Tanzania, a neighbor to Burundi on the southern border, who did not have a generalized lockdown either. There, again, corporate officials were working from home, avoiding contact and risk. A veteran journalist in the country reports: "The industry is affected as businesses slowed and so did the adverts. Some big media houses like Mwananchi Communications Ltd, which publishes three newspapers including The Citizen newspaper, painfully cut off 50 people in April when Covid-19 was in peak. The company also stopped printing The Citizen newspaper during Saturdays and Sundays. It's only available electronically".

Churchill Otieno, president of The Kenyan Editors Association, reports that 300 journalists have lost their jobs in the past 9 months. In West Africa "The economic stimulus packages announced by governments in response to the pandemic have not included the media as beneficiaries, despite the economic impact that the crisis places on them, and the crucial role they play in the fight against the pandemic", reads an article on the Media Foundation for West Africa website.

Democracy would not function without balanced and professional media outlets

Emergency Funds and a New Business Model

In many countries, the media is the only industry specifically guaranteed constitutional protection. The free flow of information is a right granted to citizens and it would not be achieved in an environment where media operations are hindered by economic challenges.

More importantly, democracy would not function without balanced and professional media outlets. In regard to a dramatic situation accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, governments and international partners will have to come up with a plan to bailout struggling media houses for a transitional period as they figure out how to take off again, and strategize around a new business model, in tune with this time and era. 

Emergency funds should not, at any cost, mean the loss of independence and neutrality, which are the fundamentals of good journalism.

Trademark East Africa, an organization that supports trade and business development in the East African region has announced plans to bailout touristic businesses that were heavily affected by Covid-19. Such initiatives should be taken with regards to the press, especially in small economies where the development of free and independent press is not necessarily a government priority.

Efforts in tax cuts for media houses, tax exemption on tech equipment aimed at the digitization of the press, subsidies to the access of the internet, could be of great help.

"What if a bailout of the media could compromise their neutrality in regard to facts?" one could rightfully ask. This is in fact a valid question and one to be considered in true honesty. Yet, in case those measures are applicable to the whole sector for a period of time, then there is no reason to suspect a media platform on the basis of a favorable treatment by the government or any other partner. Emergency funds should not, at any cost, mean the loss of independence and neutrality, which are the fundamentals of good journalism. 

As we look into the future, beyond the immediate assistance that the media industry needs in order to recover from Covid-19, getting the audience to pay for the news through subscriptions, particularly online subscriptions, and building closer relationships with readers through membership models should be explored further as alternative sources of income for media outlets. 

 

Copyright: Daniel Hayduk / AFP

 

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