Are warnings on the media industry failures justified?

Emilly C. Maractho (PhD)

What you need to know:

“Times have changed. We must be kind in our judgement sometimes and offer meaningful mentorship ’’ 

Media week has just ended in Kampala. Media Focus Africa has kept its fidelity to the idea of spending a week discussing journalism and emerging issues in media for the last five years. I have participated in each edition and still awed by the level of debate it generates. 
Each year, I have heard one or two very strong declarations. It must have been the very first one where a senior journalist declared that ‘journalism was dead’ in Uganda. 

The room was full of pessimism. The media was unviable. There were technological hurdles. The government was closing in on free speech. Journalists had become unethical in ways never seen before. The welfare of journalists and the never-ending issues of poor pay rearing its head. The control by owners and advertisers. Useless local journalism with nothing interesting on any local channel in several years. Radio and Television dead. And of course, poor quality journalism graduates, as the litany of issues continued. All facts.

This year I was in the room long enough to hear someone declare that journalism was at its lowest ebb, in a similar way to its ‘deadness’ before. He concluded that those of us who see the future of news as a continuing common thread despite changes in form and platforms are wrong. 

He crowned it all up by adding that even journalism education would soon mean nothing. He offered some well-meaning sympathy to those of us who teach, now grading Artificial Intelligence (AI) generated assignments and thinking our students are intelligent.  Every time I hear these generalised claims, it feels like an indictment on media owners, journalism professors and media managers. And we should take responsibility.

Still, several years ago when these industry masters enjoyed journalism, there was no citizen claiming to know how to report, news media organisations were in charge of news distribution, advertising was great, and social media of course was not the headache that it is to news men and women today. There was no ChatGTP making those hard honed skills seem useless at creativity. 

Years ago, researchers in the US predicted that at least one third of newspaper titles would be lost by 2025. They are now saying the figure is even closer and could be reached by next year. They have observed the trends and know that with some developments in the industry these last few years, US would lose its print titles by one third a year early. 

They have the figures and trends. Still, they are not saying journalism is dead, they are warning instead, of news deserts. They are concerned, some areas will not have enough news access as these titles are not replaced and digital ones could still leave a significant number without access to news. In that, local news is at risk. They are aware of problems with news avoidance, trust in news, failing financial models and so on but are not claiming too much.
Such information out of our northern neighbours encourages us to make assumptions of our contexts. And sometimes, our personal experiences also fuel the claims. 

I remember one fellow tweeting not long ago, ‘that Ugandan journalism degrees were useless’. He claimed that every time he met with a young person who wanted to be mentored in journalism, they knew ‘nothing’ and he had to start from zero. He wondered why these ‘young stars’ spend so much money and many years in school to get ‘useless’ degrees. He does not say, how many such graduates contact him in a year to declare hundreds of degrees ‘useless’. 

Interestingly, people speak of doctors who know nothing in medicine these days, lawyers who graduate without the skill to draft anything, accountants without ethics, and of course, journalists who cannot write anything sensible. It is often as if, these young professionals are the most useless lot of the educated in our society.  Is the person who declared journalism in Uganda dead five years ago and the one declaring journalism degrees useless claiming too much? Maybe not. 
Still, your heart must ache if you are a parent with a child pursuing one of these degrees paying with your life. Maybe send them abroad? Oh, there is AI abroad. It may seem, you are a good lawyer, doctor, accountant and journalist if you went to school in the 1980s and 1990s perhaps as the last frontier. The rest is total hogwash. 

There are major issues in our education system and the media is grappling with problems of monumental proportions. But to imagine people in these areas are folding their arms waiting for a tornado to sweep them is naïve. Unless they do nothing. People are getting creative, trying to adapt and learn new skills. Many young people know what most of us can only marvel at.  Times have changed. We must be kind in our judgement sometimes and offer meaningful mentorship. We need to find ways to channel their energies and creativity.

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       [email protected]