On the 13th of April I got the priviledge of facilitating a seminar on the important topic of media viability. This webinar was one of three webinars organized by the Southern African Editors Forum (SAEF) on behalf of UNESCO as precursors to the 2021 World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebrations in Windhoek on May 03. The webinar(s) were aimed to help SAEF to shape what is to go into another ground-breaking Windhoek +30 Declaration.
The webinar on: “The viability of media (in times of covid 19 and dominance of oligopolies) and their role in the production and sharing of information” was joined by a panel of 8 chapter chairpersons of SAEF and leading journalist associations from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. As industry experts with long experience in journalism practice, their insights around the topic were timely, valuable and insightful.
There was a general acknowledgement in the discussions of the perilous status of the core media ecology before the onset of Covid 19. Already, before the pandemic, the media industry in Southern Africa and indeed globally had been struggling with existential challenges including but not limited to: steadily dwindling income from advertising (as traditional economic models were increasingly becoming obsolete), declining buying audiences, listeners and viewers, dominance of media oligopolies and tech companies such as Facebook and Google that squeezed out many small, private, public interest media outlets and lack of trust and credibility in the traditional media. All this amidst rapid and consequential shifts in digital and online communication/platforms i.e. social media use, citizen journalism etc.
Within this context, the Covid 19 pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the industry and profession – no wonder some commentators have referred to this moment as ‘a media extinction event’ or ‘ a Darwinian moment’ – reflecting the nature and scope of the devastating impact of Covid on the media and its viability. The webinar discussions helped unpack, with examples from the different countries, some of these existential discourses, highlighting not just the challenges but also opportunities. We wound up the discussion with a call to action and way forward.
SUMMARY OF CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Covid 19 heightened the already debilitating existential challenges faced by legacy media. From the discussion, it was clear no country-media was left untouched by this devastation and the issue of media viability was a great concern. From the discussions, the biggest challenge to media viability were of an economic nature. At a media outlet level – all panelists reported gross loss of income, closure of several newsrooms – some temporarily and others permanently and several media outlets had to adapt lean and mean structural changes to remain afloat. During the eye of the pandemic (i.e. lock down) several of the media houses assumed a survivalist mode. At a professional/individual level – panelists painted a troubling picture, including: massive laid offs, salary cuts (some up to 100%), canceled annual leaves and so on. Freelancers and photojournalists, often working without contracts and adhoc were the hardest hit and the dire consequences of these developments and their detriment to audiences/citizenship/democracy were aired out. The wellbeing of journalists and their mental health as fundamental to media viability was also discussed as well as the changing roles of journalism education institutions. Several of the panelists shared innovative ways in which the media in their countries (e.g. Southern Africa) and regionally (SAEF) responded to the devastation of Covid including for instance the establishment of relief funds to assist struggling journalists. This kind of help was however dependent on transparency and clear criteria for distribution.
Who were the winners and loosers?
Also, a clear picture emerged of winners and loosers. Print media i.e. Nnewspapers and magazines were clear losers as the print economic model of sustainability (i.e. advertisements and sales-heavy) became unsustainable especially during lock-down. Small, community and private media were also among the losers for same reasons.
About the winners – the loss of paying customers among legacy media reflected in the high migration of audiences to broadcasting media and the proliferation of online media consumption especially of Print versions of legacy media and multinational tech-companies like google and Facebook – which became primary sources of information. On a positive note, the migration to online versions of legacy media meant that people still found these media credible and trustworthy especially at critical times such as during the pandemic. Despite that, our panelists pointed out that, the heavy migration to online channels did not bring with it revenues as people enjoyed free credible information. It is left to these organizations to harness these new audiences, listeners/readers into paying customers and also find innovative ways to sustain these users in the long term (Post-Covid). And as for the international tech-companies like Facebook and Google that consumes majority of adverts – panelists called for multi-actor dialogue and concrete ways to balance the economic dividends-issue.
Other than the economic variable to media viability, the discussants highlighted other factors such as the political aspect calling attention to legislation and sometimes draconian bills aimed at impeding Freedom of expression and journalists’ fourth estate roles; We also discussed technological issues which include infrastructural-outreach and the digital divide. Media content and information as a public good is also another factor to consider for a viable media – importance of credible, transparent and trustworthy media cannot be underestimated. Lastly, community issues that affect participation of citizens’ engagement in media discourses play an equally important role in media viability.
We wrapped up with a call to action for media viability on short and long term – targeting the broader media ecosystems: Governments, media houses, journalists, corporates, citizens, etc.The viability of the media would require combined efforts including: Economic: identifying creative and innovative models that build on the third revenue stream (as ads and sales are rather ineffective). Political dimensions – proper policies to guide the way forward and those that do not impede on freedom of expression. Technological – the digital migration also highlights challenges of infrastructure deficits and the digital divide that affects majority of rural African populations – these need to be sorted for long term media viability. Content-wise – a credible, trustworthy media that stands on the foundations of verifiable, transparent, public interest, independent and pluralistic principles will stand the test of viability and finally Societal co-creation of media content that incorporates principles of participation and engagement and media literacy were seen as important for media viability. NOTE: Research is needed to assess the true magnitude and nature of the covid pandemic devastation.