Independent journalism in Africa faces two major, and related, financial constraints. The first is lack of advertising revenue, giving rise to the second, the pitifully low pay journalists receive. The quality of media suffers, as journalists scurry around trying to take on more work than they can reasonably manage, or succumb to brown paper envelopes from special interest groups. What Africa’s journalists need is not more training, but simply more money.
Somewhere in the middle of Africa’s largest slum, Kibera in Nairobi, is a small shack that looks no different to the ones that surround it, a typically haphazard combination of corrugated iron and scrap metal. Inside, however, is a different story. The interior walls are a collection of whiteboards that stretch from floor to ceiling, covered in the neat handwriting of the shack’s owner, an enterprising media mogul who spotted a gap in the market. He understood that people, no matter how poor, are hungry for information and for a small fee, much less than the price of a single newspaper, he allows people to come into his shack and read what he has written on the whiteboards – a translated and summarised version of what’s in that day’s newspapers.
It is a myth that information is free. It is not. Just because we no longer pay our subscriptions or fees to the newspapers and media groups does not mean we have stopped paying altogether. Instead, we pay the Internet service providers, the telecommunications companies, the electricity companies, the Internet cafes and so on. All the talk of free information is, of course, nonsense. Everybody pays - one way or another.
This raises particular problems for media in Africa, the poorest continent in the world. Even reputable international media struggle to make ends meet in this austere financial environment, and they have the benefit of high cover prices, blue-chip advertising and even trust funds (such as The Guardian, which relies on a fund set up early last century to provide for its financial security). Subscriber numbers have tumbled as more and more people get their information online, and paywall experiments have widely failed to live up to their hype.
For African media the problems are more acute. Advertisers are likely to spend far less, with full page adverts in major newspapers in some African countries such as Liberia and Ethiopia costing just a few hundred dollars. Not a lot is raised from circulation either, with cover prices being expensive in relation to local budgets. A common practice in Nigeria is for a shop to buy one copy of a newspaper, and then rent out that copy in 10-minute slots for a small fee to customers who browse through the pages in the shop. One copy of a newspaper may be read 20 times, but the newspaper will receive payment only for that single copy.
Similarly, in Hargeisa, the capital of the unrecognised “Republic of Somaliland”, street vendors let potential customers page leisurely through the newspapers, teacup in hand, to see if they are interesting enough to buy. This means a paper is actually read a number of times before it is sold. In terms of getting information to the people, these are all excellent strategies, allowing news to be disseminated far and wide. In terms of safeguarding the production of news and the viability of journalism in Africa, these practises present difficulties.
Another problem is remuneration for African journalists. Journalism is never a particularly well-paid profession – something someone should have told me before I started – but in Africa journalists’ salaries are particularly poor. Staff on some of the major newspapers in Tanzania, for example, will cover stories only when the subject of the story (say, a company launching a product, or an NGO hosting a press conference) will agree to cover travel expenses. This is because the expense is usually more than they will be paid for the story itself. Covering expenses is in fact standard practise across much of the continent, and the ability to do so can influence coverage. This all means journalism is not an attractive profession for Africa’s best and brightest and leaves journalists vulnerable to temptation.
In short, media in Africa needs money, and where it comes from will determine the tone and quality of journalism in the next century. Governments, of course, have plenty of money to give to media - their own. It’s no surprise state newspapers and broadcasters are frequently the biggest and most influential media outlets, even in countries where independent outlets are permitted. They’re allowed to make a loss, and frequently do. They also make for poor journalism, beholden to the government of the day (or decade, depending on the intransigence of those in power).
NGOs are also happy to throw money at the media, but often do so in the wrong way. Here’s a piece of advice for all NGOs: African journalists do not need more training. They need more money. Put your money into paying them a decent salary, and don’t be surprised by a huge improvement in the quality of reporting. One NGO, which will remain nameless, paid for 10 Sudanese journalists to fly to Nairobi before the Sudanese elections earlier this year for a training workshop on electoral reporting. One of the participants, the editor of a respected newspaper in Juba, was asked what the most valuable part of the workshop had been. “The food was excellent,” he replied.
Of course, there is some money to be made in journalism in Africa. Some newspapers in South Africa turn a profit, as do some in Kenya and Nigeria, all regional media hubs. Tabloids, in particular, sell well and bring in money. However, these countries all operate in a relatively unregulated media environment and have long-established media groups which run a variety of publications, allowing for some to make losses.
Perhaps the most optimistic solution to Africa’s journalism money woes is for the expansion of these groups across borders, as the Nation Media Group has done across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. By sharing content and enjoying economies of scale, these large companies are in a position to provide better content at less cost. There are dangers in this approach too, however, as with a greater concentration of media ownership comes greater ease of manipulation - just ask Rupert Murdoch. Although I would be more inclined to trust the Aga Khan (the owner of the NMG) than I would Murdoch.
Like so many things, quality in the media comes down to money. To improve and maintain the quality of this continent’s journalism, we need more money coming in. But money never comes without strings, and we need to be very careful which strings we choose to tie ourselves down. Whatever we choose, self-interest dictates that as long as the continent’s journalists are being paid better, I’ll be happy. FAM