The wreckage wrought by Covid-19 on media everywhere in the world has been widely reported, and experienced, we won’t dwell on it much. While in the West, here and there, a few outlets are actually thriving from the virus.
In East Africa and around the continent, the picture is bleak, with only one publisher in South Africa providing the only good news story I have heard. Loss of advertising of up to 75 per cent, and circulation of equal magnitude, is the order of the day. In turn, they have brought on extensive pay cuts of up to 60 per cent in some media houses.
We won’t mourn today; rather we shall look to the changes the many people looking for salvation, and with the courage to look at some very strange solutions, are thinking of.
In early April, as the virus was beginning to make its way into our part of the world, a friend, a very good writer, whom I had tried unsuccessfully to get on phone, called back. I asked why he had been hard to get. He told me he had got greedy, and taken on too heavy a writing load from a couple of international publications.
He then explained that Covid-19 had been very good for him. “You see, now all those parachute Western journalists, bloggers, and writers can’t travel with this virus thing,” he said, “so there is a lot of the writing business coming to us who are here.”
It got me following the opportunities that had opened up, even as the virus dramatically disrupted media.
However, while that will work for an independent writer and freelance journalist, it does nothing for the Daily Monitor, for example. Some obvious solutions have been prescribed; a more aggressive and smart digital strategy, a more creative use of social media from Instagram to Tik Tok, and so forth.
But if you are a Ugandan publisher, with the limited Internet access and relatively expensive broadband, and a social media tax, that will get you more reach, but only so far.
Most importantly, none of that solves the problem of the bread of news, content, and the butter, advertising.
An African editor who is thinking hard about this, told me the media needs to take a leaf from what musicians and artists, especially in West Africa on the continent, have done during the lockdowns. From disparate far-flung places, they have been able to string together shows online, and to develop and complete collaborative art projects.
As one example, in practice it means that if the Daily Monitor or the New Vision wanted to do a special on the impact of Covid-19 on education in Uganda, because they can’t get a feature or special project writer on the road, doesn’t mean they can’t do it.
They can create a template, write up a scaffold, and distribute to 12 people who are still in half-lockdown in different parts of the country, and from their input, put together a possibly better report than before Covid-19.
Their editors just need to get cleverer. A photographic essay, even TV footage, and several other journalism projects, can be done the same way – and at lower cost than previously.
That leads to the even more vexing issue of who will pay for it. I am not a fan of charity models. Then, even if you could set up a good online or mobile money-based subscription platform, digital subscriptions and advertising in Africa are meagre, you will only make peanuts. Once a subscription costs more than the price of an African’s five-minute call to his mother, you have a problem.
Another chap told me there is a solution; set up an online exchange where a wide range of producers of goods exchange their products and services for supplements or advertising in media. Assume it is called “Media Sokoni”.
As a media house, you go there and advertise that you are doing a special report on housing and you offer space for advertising and informercials.
Advertisers, who would already be listed, come on with the guy who sells furniture offering to give you two office tables and chairs for a full page of advertising.
A Kikuubo trader could give you nice shirts and blouses for your TV anchors for a few seconds ads over two days. You could get souvenir makers to develop a new line of products (think of “Monitor Lizard” wise cracks on T-shirts) that you can flog.
I remember years ago, an imaginative school in Mubende or Mityana that was paying teachers in chicken and matooke that hard up parents had given in as fees for their children. I imagine Ugachick wings for the whole newsroom once a month for a two-pager, could work magic.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist,
writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”.