Monitor @30: A peek into the newspaper’s future

Chief Justice Alfonse Owiny-Dollo gives the keynote speech during the public dialogue to mark the 30th Anniversary of Monitor Publications Ltd at the Kampala Serena Hotel on August 4, 2022. He said social media is here to stay...this calls for innovations to match the increasing revolution in this industry. PHOTO | STEPHEN OTAGE

What you need to know:

  • Thirty years after The Monitor newspaper printed its first edition; legacy media faces an existential threat—low advertising revenues, cratering sales and notoriously fickle audiences whose loyalty is shifting.

In the past, legacy media ruled the roost as the only platform for advertisement—in print form, on the radio or television. However, the Internet has expanded the technological frontiers providing every website, search engine and social media site as a platform for advertising. Big tech blue-chip firms have raided this wave making Facebook and Google the biggest competitors of media in terms of advertisement revenue.

Algorithm-driven news distribution platforms have reduced market entry costs and widened the market reach for news publishers and readers. At the same time, they separate the role of content editors and curators of news distribution.

The latter becomes algorithm-driven, often with a view to maximise traffic and advertising revenue. This then limits the traditional role of trusted editors as quality intermediaries and facilitates the distribution of false and fake news content.

The news is read instantly online as the news eco-system continues to be disruptive.

Thirty years ago, audiences woke up at the crack of dawn to buy The Monitor newspaper to read about news on the Cabinet reshuffle and the release of student exams—two events that usually provided the largest circulation numbers. Television audiences tuned in for appointment viewership during prime time. 

However, today news is read on the cellphone through an algorithm that provides instant updates. This advancement in technology has chalked off circulation numbers and linear viewership.

There is also a decline in trust by audiences about the information as digitalisation has created a space online for alternative voices, both reliable and unreliable. Today falsehoods and facts now spread the same way, through what experts call an information cascade.

Ms Katharine Viner, who is the executive editor of the Guardian newspaper, authored an insightful piece in the Long Read section of the newspaper, titled: How technology disrupted the Truth.

She postulates that the “trouble is that the business model of most digital news organisations is based around clicks. News media around the world has reached a fever-pitch of frenzied binge-publishing, in order to scrape up digital advertising’s pennies and cents. And there’s not much advertising to be got. In the first quarter of 2016, 85 cents of every new dollar spent in the US on online advertising went to Google and Facebook. That used to go to news publishers”.

The challenges facing media house executives now is how to create a business model that is able to retain old readers who are moored to the traditional setting and attract younger audiences who have diverse content to watch and read.

“The young people I believe want news, information because they want growth, but the style they want is different from what the older audience wants. They want the story told differently, they want to be reached in a different mode, they want to be heard a lot of the time, they want to be listened to,” says Ms Carol Beyanga who is the head of Nation Media Group (NMG) - Uganda’s Mentorship and Partnership Desk.

The Monitor newspaper as part of the NMG flagship has re-aligned its business model to accelerate its digital transformation in the wake of a slump in sales and legacy advertising during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Digital transformation

Mr Daniel Kalinaki, the General Manager Editorial NMG-Uganda, opines that “the changes happening in media have been going on for many years as far as emergence of Radio, Tv and the Internet. Change is a constant in the evolution of technology and the media itself’’.

He says in terms of legacy of media houses “the biggest changes are two; the business model, the underlying business model was that you created a product, build an audience around that product and sold that audience to the advertisers. It is now clear that the advertisers will not always come to legacy media to reach particular audiences, they will go through social media, websites and apps’’.

‘‘So, that underlying business model needs to change to one where media houses are relying a significant amount of their revenue on the consumers, you go from selling advertising to selling content.That is actually disruptive, but in the long run it’s going to be a good thing. 

‘‘Media houses need to give people information that allows them to make informed decisions not the he or she said. People want to know where to take their children to schools, how to work out, where to build their houses, how to save money and invest, parenting etc. We need to re-examine that, and move from the prism of news to a prism of am I helping someone,”  Mr Kalinaki adds.

The Monitor newspaper, which trailed the blaze many years ago by going online, is seeking to leverage technology.  

 “Journalism itself is not changing. It is just the landscape that is the platforms that are changing. Daily Monitor has already begun the journey to get online. We were among the first newspapers to get online in East Africa and beyond. What we are doing now is to ensure that we understand the audience online. I believe, Daily Monitor from the beginning knew that this is a platform that we have to start understanding so we are doing a number of things to get into that space by being on various platforms whether it’s social media or the websites,” Ms Beyanga reveals.

The newspaper is mulling the idea of monetising content. 

However, Mr Kalinaki says this must be approached with caution. “I don’t agree that the ultimate goal of digital journalism is to make money. It is important to be profitable because you need to be profitable to re-invest in newsrooms. But I think media as an industry has an intrinsic value that goes beyond making money to holding power accountable, it is about informing people, its about entertaining, its about giving a platform for debate etc.”

Ms Beyanga argues: “I believe monetising content is a journey. It won’t happen in one year. We have seen experience worldwide, even with the best newspapers that are doing quite well with subscriptions, it was a long journey, it took decades for them to realise that okay now we have got the right balance, we know who to ask, we know how much to ask, we know which platforms we can ask them to pay for and which ones we cannot.”

“We have to first create content, push it and get attention and after those who will have read can easily confirm into a weekly community whom you are sure will read your content, now you get that community and see if they can register. Of those that have registered, you will know they are committed, then you customise the content and introduce payment slowly by slowly. It takes patience, it is a whole process, but it pays off at the end,” says Sabra Nakazzi who is the audience engagement specialist at the Daily Monitor. 

Industry players argue that legacy media such as Daily Monitor should be able to leverage its “truth everyday mantra” to reach out to a number of readers in regard to its content on different platforms.

Already the newspaper enjoys the highest online readership. By the end of July, the online paper registered 1.6 million users a month.

On addressing the people, process and product component, Mr Tabu Butagira, the Managing Editor,  NMG-Uganda, says: “To sail over the current storm of disruption, The Monitor will require substantial investment to skill staff, be intentional about appropriate positioning and remuneration of in-house talent, and acquire technology, equipment and infrastructure that answers today’s and future needs for creative content creation and delivery across platforms. This means all employees and departments should be switched on digital transformation.’’ 

“Otherwise, the newspaper will continue to suffer high attrition, thus, haemorrhaging refined talent, experience and institutional memory. Such exodus increases workload on, burn-out of, existing employees, which stagnates enterprise and births preventable lapses. In additional, unlike the older, mission-oriented and loyal employees, the younger generation is restless, always yearning to explore more. They need the space for realisation of their adventurous ideas. Or else, they will quit, yet they hold the future of the media house and industry. 

“The future of the legacy product, in this case the print, which is a cash cow, can be insured through long-form revealing and exclusive content including investigations, and solution journalism,” he adds.

Mr Wangethi Mwangi, the former editorial director and currently a non-executive director and board member of Nation Media Group, says: “Digital is now and the future. And anybody that cares about journalism then has to play in that field. The consumption of the news has changed. There are new platforms that our people are using to consume their news. And that is the whole point about NMG heavily investing just as it is today not just in Nairobi, but also in Uganda and Tanzania in digital platforms to ensure that we continue doing what we do best, but in different ways drawing our readers and audiences together to continue benefitting from the products we produce.”

Fake news

As social media grapples with fake news and each purveyor on the cyber space eco-system having their own set of facts, legacy media, which has more gatekeeping rigours, could offer a product that is trustworthy.

Prof Samuel Sejjaaka, who is the board chairperson for Monitor Publications Ltd, says: “What is going to make us remain relevant is the level of analysis. For me in terms of strategy, I would want us as a group to think about or human resources, how are we training them, how are we equipping them to deal with the challenges of transmitting information and understanding the agenda of the different stakeholders that we serve. I read a lot of international newspapers one of them being the New York Times, and you can see that the depth of analysis of issues has changed.”

It is a view shared by Wangethi. “What then management will need to do to make sure that the pace is maintained is to ensure that there is a lot of investments in terms of upskilling in the newsrooms so that people have enough resources, knowledge or skills to execute the new forms of journalism that the public requires. The journalism that we do today of he said, she said is not what is going to define The Monitor’s future. It is the journalism that people are clamouring for; long form journalism, intepretative journalism, investigative journalism and its journalism that locks the people’s mind on the big issues of the day.”

Diversity

To improve its diversity, The Monitor newspaper could also have other segments on climate change, explainers, instant fact checking and more specialised reporting.

Ms Nakazzi says: “We have not yet done a full audience research, but when I look at our website and looking at the behavioural pattern of the people, there is a lot of interest on stories to do with innovation and applications, especially those that connect people to what they are looking for, Fintech and cryptocurrency and data protection and telecoms and now electric cars.”

In its early days, The Monitor newspaper’s mission was to stay alive and be able to illuminate the dark alleys of our nascent democracy. In the next decade, the newspaper’s war theatre will likely shift.  

Ms Carolyne Nakazibwe, a former journalist at The Monitor, says: “The newspaper has the unique position of being 30 years old now and having a rich alumni chapter that I don’t think they are tapping into. Because those people are still alive, some of us have been doing this [journalism] for decades, not because it is not amazingly paying, but it is what we love to do. We are scattered all over the world, but we are Monitor alumni, and I think we can use that to mentor the young people to help them walk in the steps people like Charles Onyango-Obbo walked.’’

The former Monitor newspaper business editor, Ms Theresa Nannozi, says: “Probably journalism needs to be examined if the industry has remained too married to old ways of doing things and see how it can re-invent itself in a new world. There is need to invest in the journalists for them to be competent journalists, well trained, understand their craft and be able to tell their stories well, but also to be able to adopt to the new technology that has come up for telling stories.” 

To stay alive, The Monitor newspaper must rely on technology as a medium to reach larger, diverse audiences and make smart business choices.  However, it should remain committed to its anachronistic values. 




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