What you need to know:
- Now no one wants to go back to the old ways entirely. Some good aspects of the old ways will be retained, but most of the new discoveries in training as we figured things out will be our mainstay.
- In that sense, Covid-19 has changed journalism education for the better, writes Dr Emilly Comfort Maractho.
As I write this piece, one of the major stories of the week involves the long-awaited opening of the night economy. For close to two years, bars and nightclubs remained closed in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
While it might seem like just another story, it represents the extent to which Covid-19 has remained much of an economic story as it is health.
The opening of schools, only two weeks earlier, has shown how much of that economy was lying dormant, judging by the traffic flow despite fuel prices going on record high at the time.
The significance of this economic story is closely tied to the media industry. Already struggling with dwindling advertising revenue, reduction in circulation of print and small national economy, the media took so much heat that it was inevitable for the industry to reconfigure its operations in terms of human resources, newsroom operations, salaries to employees, and online sources.
With that context, one has to reflect on the future of media. The question is, how has Covid-19 affected the future of media in general and journalism education in particular?
This piece is based on my observations both as head of department of journalism and media studies and my year in the International Training Programme for media development which started in 2020.
The future of media it is clear was affected by deepening the already existing challenges like a not so favourable environment, problems with viability and an often-huge skills gap despite increasing number of graduates in the field, either appropriately trained or otherwise.
The media landscape no doubt had challenges before Covid-19, that only deepened.
Implications of Covid on media’s future
After liberalisation of media in the early 1990s, the growth of media was exponential. By Covid-19 outbreak in early 2020, Uganda was talking of more than 300 radio stations, 40 television stations and a rapidly growing number of online outlets.
Most parts of Uganda owned a radio station and could access television by some means. Concerns about ownership dynamics that largely seemed to be in the hands of politicians and businesses seemed to pale in comparison to the need for access to information.
What seemed to matter was that most people had access to information by some form of media. Diversity by geography seems to have been sufficiently addressed.
However, Covid-19 has significantly affected the future of media in mainly two ways:
First, given the viability questions that plague most entities, there is an emerging concern on what the numbers mean. It is possible that calls for collaborations rather than competition as well as mergers and acquisitions could soon be a reality as others sell out.
With the media economy deeply affected, there is a limit to which journalists will continue to make the sacrifices to keep news media organisations afloat while taking too little in pay.
The numbers need to make sense in business and professional terms. If this route is taken, it may bring sanity to some media houses or professionalism will quickly become a thing of the past.
The second is that for news media organisations without the express support of taxpayers’, reorganisation is the only way out.
The media could find innovative ways to keep fewer human resources, doing what they are good at and redesigning their work.
This will take the form of scaling down operations, reduction in human resources and specialised reporting.
Already, print media actors were positioning themselves to do more in-depth, investigative stories in order to find their niche.
This would enable them to find valuable space for their kind of product. They could focus on doing ‘real’ journalism and leave ‘citizen journalism’ to the online group.
The future of journalism education
The impact of Covid-19 on the media was devastating to say the least. These have been recounted above and in countless anecdotes.
Like the future of media, here too there is the good and bad news. I will start with the bad news and end with the good.
The first bad news is that so many stories of poor pay, harsh working conditions, and a seemingly bleak future of the industry potentially has a negative impact on young people’s choice of career. To think that the field itself has no future implies that more people are likely to make other career choices.
We have had internal conversations about the impact of Covid-19 on the media and the potentially difficult political environment within which the media operate on journalism education in Uganda.
The second bad news is that Covid-19 will reverse some gains made towards gender sensitive reporting and fair representation in news for women.
Some female journalists have indicated that it was quite hard to be a female reporter in the circumstance with lockdown measures and working at home.
While some found that it allowed them to keep an eye on their children at home, others suggest that the pressure and increased workload as more people got laid off meant that they were making much greater sacrifices to get the job done. This sacrifice was with much less pay as individual journalism income and freelance suffered.
The implication is that fewer female journalism students and journalists are likely to consider journalism as a viable option.
The final bad news is that while we are still able to continue training journalists largely online, the practical aspects of training and supervision of research have greatly suffered.
Hopefully, this will be addressed as universities are now fully functional, at least for now.
The good news, which constitutes opportunities for journalism education includes digitisation, partnerships, new areas of research and fresh perspectives into health reporting.
The first good news is that digitisation became ‘the’ word. Uganda Christian University that had already been running programmes in a blended manner quickly returned to teaching despite the closure of schools.
By September 2020, we were back to teaching, this time fully online. We were in a dilemma on how practical courses would work out.
We had to find creative ways to share materials and record lectures and so on. We would soon discover incredible online resources to help our students learn.
Now no one wants to go back to the old ways entirely. Some good aspects of the old ways will be retained, but most of the new discoveries in training as we figured things out will be our mainstay. In that sense, Covid-19 has changed journalism education for the better.
The second good news is that partnerships with the industry became a critical point of call for UCU.
Having seen our internship programme suffer, the university got into formal partnerships to ensure that would not happen again.
The Vice Chancellor, Prof Aaron Mushengyezi, visited both the New Vision and Next Media Services, which have paid huge dividends in terms of giving placement for UCU students.
It was easy to recognise that this would be a challenged area that needed the total support of management.
Internship placement plays a critical role in ensuring that students supplement their theoretical knowledge and the limited exposure to industry is bridged.
Before Covid-19, there had been concerns about journalism graduates’ grasp of practical skills. Internship has to continue to fill that gap.
The third opportunity came in the form of fresh perspectives into health reporting. For all its problems, Covid-19 provided fresh insights into health reporting.
Traditionally considered a soft area of reporting that largely interested or was assigned to female reporters, more senior male journalists were taking keen interest in the subject.
Because Covid-19 came with a lot of conspiracy theories, misinformation and some forms of unethical reporting, there was a lot of interest among media development organisations to train on fact-checking and health reporting, focusing on the news aspects of Covid-19.
Thanks to the existence of so many training opportunities online largely offered for free, it was possible to pick up a skill or two. This is likely to form a critical area of the journalism training curriculum going forward.
New research trends
The fourth area of interest is how new areas of research emerged and will continue influencing journalism education.
After failing to hold the East Africa Communication Association (EACA) Conference in 2020 due to Covid-19, Uganda Christian University chose to run a purely virtual conference.
One of the interesting things to emerge was that the conference attracted several research papers whose topics had to do with Covid-19 coverage, crisis communication and health communication in general.
It is wonderful seeing that Covid-19 has in some ways expanded the areas of media and communication research. Similar conference calls gave Covid-19 communication its own space.
This will positively impact the field of journalism education and more postgraduate students are likely to conduct research on such matters.
There is no doubt that the digital revolution has been a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, the emergence of many players on the digital platform has deepened the disruption of the media landscape with critical impact on traditional media, but on the other hand, it has offered the infrastructure through which journalism education has continued, almost uninterrupted.
The challenges for the media remain. The opportunities that technology offers could also be its pathway to a more viable and sustainable media ecosystem.
Dr Emily Comfort Maractho is the director of Africa Policy Centre at Uganda Christian University.