Laying off journalists isn’t the silver bullet

Raymond Mujuni

What you need to know:

  • The cost of investment in human resources; skilling and retooling to confront the digital world of news is way cheaper than that of fumbling with a low staff count with heavy workloads.

The last few days have been a black November for journalism. In separate announcements, major media houses, in the country, region, continent and globally have announced plans to let go of journalists to keep up their balance sheet. 

The same happened last year – and the year before then.

The fortunes of traditional media consumption have been dwindling. Fewer people are watching the news on TV, and even less buying newspapers. Some disjointed audience is taking shape on online platforms. Clicking on sleaze, gossip and well-done journalism – mostly investigative. But they are also spending longer hours on betting, pornography and social media sites.

The target market of Uganda’s journalism is spending more amounts of money on meals at Javas, or drinks at Alchemist in a day than the combined annual subscription of a newspaper. The paper is 2000 shillings, almost as cheap as chewing gum – and yet, users have rejected it roundly. If we take the estimated middle class of Uganda to be 5 million people, only 0.4% of that is purchasing newspapers.

There’s a crisis to be debated on both the part of the readers and the media institutions – but first – and for this column – let's talk about the internal crisis.

News publishing is an interesting phenomenon. It is the source of information for tonnes of conversation and public debate. It is also the source and platform for nearly every idea that feeds into governance and opposition to it. It is power, raw power by the quill. An editor in a day fields enough calls to be a prime target for espionage. Yet, that power and importance have failed to translate into increased revenue. Of five from the world’s most valuable companies, two are publishers – who feed off news content [Google and Facebook] Yet, the sources of that content are struggling with basic revenue targets.

In Uganda, the most visited websites outside of betting and pornography, remain the news websites – and yet while the two categories that aren’t news fetch their share, news websites struggle to take part in a measly and declining advertising revenue spend.

Many newsrooms are responding to the financial pressure by massive layoffs and reassigning existing roles to already overworked staff. That is a proper recipe for disaster. The outcome is going to be less coverage, shaky hands at the editorial desks, and massive mistakes in the news that cost both user trust and viability. So, in the short term, it will deliver results to the board but will not expand the bourse.

The cost of investment in human resources; skilling and retooling to confront the digital world of news is way cheaper than that of fumbling with a low staff count with heavy workloads.

Layoffs won’t work. They will make for maybe one or two good balance sheets but they’ll cost journalism big time.

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