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Analysis | Ajwang: Uncertainty Is a Wake-up Call For Media Organizations

These are also the concerns of  several other media houses in Uganda in a fast-changing media industry.

KAMPALA — Recently, I paid a courtesy call to a media leader in a Ugandan newsroom. Our discussion largely centered on how the industry can keep afloat in the increasingly uncertain times — a sad reality journalism has woken up to.

Besides the safety and security, ethical issues and low pay, she raised very critical questions. “How are media houses going to run this business yet they have been registering many losses? Where have all the adverts gone? Where are the audiences?

These are also the concerns of  several other media houses in Uganda in a fast-changing media industry. She argued that if these are answered and resolved, the other challenges facing the media would be a lot easier to confront.

For many organizations, it is a real gamble to keep the candle of good journalism burning, due to declining revenues, changes in audience behavior, pressure from government and advertisers among others.  These challenges have been further escalated by the Covid 19 pandemic.

To save businesses at the peak of Covid-19 in Uganda, some media houses have had to lay off  staff, cut operational costs, enlist more freelance journalists and forge new and realistic way of in order to keep both journalism and the business of journalism alive which are critical for attaining media viability.

As Deutsch Welle Akademie(2019) explains “…viability is a broader concept that not only encapsulates the (financial) survival of media outlets, but also their ability to produce independent, high-quality content. Therefore, it makes more sense to speak of media viability as the means of ensuring high journalistic standards and independence”

Thus, the magnitude of the problem is also the impact a struggling business would have on independent journalism. For instance Covid 19 impact on an already uncertain media environment revealed a lot about Media Viability.

The Uganda government and its partners introduce mitigation measures and enforcement of the Standard Operating Procedures that put pressure on journalism. A total lockdown and later curfew put limitation to mobility for journalism, marketing, circulation/distribution of media products especially traditional print. Also there were challenges in access to information and sources, and a rise in disinformation that have had implications on growth in revenues and quality reporting

Since 2019, MFA Uganda in partnership with DW Akademie has hosted a series of media dialogues on Media Viability, to bring together different industry players to express their views, share best practices and also craft locally relevant solutions to address the context of their challenges. The participants included media owners, editors, advertising managers and representatives, rural based media (owners and journalists among others).

Some of the questions that emerged include:

  • Audiences:  How to reclaim lost audiences; how to grow, engage and keep them; how to reach younger audiences.
  • Sustaining the business: How to increase revenues amidst the challenges? What new approaches and innovations could be explored? How to remain more relevant to advertisers?     
  • Use of technology and new media: Where to start, where to improve and how to innovate. Some media houses were using social media but wished to know how to grow more audiences and increase revenue online.     
  • Women in Media: Some media owners suggested that while keeping women journalists was proving costly (by taking maternity leave, supporting nursing mothers and women journalists who were unable to work late hours) and wanted to know how this could be addressed. Through discussions there were various solutions, but the two that stood out included; Investing in audience research and embracing the use of technology and new media, especially social media, to not only grow audiences but increase revenues. Some media houses had started some innovations in these areas and had received some gains. For example Mama FM has mentioned that they have a gender policy- which they intentionally enforce to caters to the needs for women journalists. Daily Monitor has also previously set aside a room/ safety space for nursing mothers.  If a mother wished to express milk, she could go to this room. It had a fridge, a kettle for hot water, tips for nursing mothers etc. According to Carol Beyanga- head of digital at Nation Media Group Uganda who was among the team that advocated for the facility, while it was provided for it was under-utilized there was still need for the women in the newsroom to be further sensitized about it and to understand the context of why it was set up.
  • Using local languages to connect to audiences: For instance Radio Simba Social Media Manager- Ali Mubiru revealed that as a radio, the use of only Luganda as a language of communication in their social pages has connected them to more audiences who speak the language locally. However, also in the diaspora, Ugandan who speak Luganda connect to the station as a way to embrace their heritage and also for their children and the younger generation to learn the language.
  • Celebrities Concerts, Awards at Galaxy FM, owner Innocent Nahabwe explained that partnerships and employing celebrities on radio has helped to grow audiences. Some of these celebrities may have more followers than traditional media outlets and can be used as influencers. The station also uses concerts and events and awards outside the radio station to connect with and grow audiences from their passion points. Some of these concerts/events have entry fees, attract advertising partners and therefore also contribute to grow revenues.

The Covid-19 Pandemic

While the media was still dealing with all of these challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic, came in with fresh setbacks to the industry.

In April 2020 at the start of a total lockdown in Uganda, media houses were caught unprepared. Some had to cut down on production of print newspapers, or close some of their products. For instance, The Observer suspended its print version for a while. The New Vision has also since suspended the print of other regional dailies. Online subscriptions became mostly free or discounted for subscribers. Journalists have also lost jobs, experienced pay cuts or are yet to be paid. Media houses had to work with the bare minimum of journalists to report so much. This was also at a critical time when few journalists were well-skilled in reporting pandemics, and also during an increasing wave of disinformation about Covid-19.

Some journalists were exposed to the pandemic in line of their work and they had to either stay in isolation or seek treatment. As a precaution more journalists had to go into self- quarantine. The costs for Internet to cover stories was higher, especially for freelance journalists who had to fend for themselves.

For rural based journalists the glaring challenge of keeping the newsroom alive was very difficult, let alone experiencing the brunt of the digital divide as mobility was limited. Also access to the Internet and affordable smartphones for the journalists in these areas wasn’t as obvious as those in urban areas. Yet there were also some gains-with the sequential easing of the lockdown since June 2020.

More journalists can now access their work station and there is more ease of mobility. Journalists have had to learn new skills and take a multimedia approach to journalism. However, several journalists still remain unemployed or are working without pay.

The online only media houses/outlets that previously competed with legacy media for audiences have also seen increases in traffic, as most information during this season has been accessed online. There is however little evidence to show or confirm whether apart from increase in audiences the online spaces have been intentionally used to grow revenues.

Covid-19 only further emphasized the need for continually planning, preparing and projecting the future of every media viability approach. In order not to be off guard, media houses and journalists alike must be deliberate in predicting their futures.

Jan Ajwang is the Program Manager at Media Focus on Africa, Uganda.