KAMPALA — The media in Uganda is not alone in facing an existential threat or the challenge of viability. Many news outlets are struggling to remain viable throughout the world, particularly traditional news media (radio, television and print) that has been challenged by digital media. Media viability thus became an important topic long before Covid-19 broke out in late 2019 and became a reality for Uganda early 2020.
How has Covid-19, therefore, affected an already struggling media in Uganda? In what ways can the media meaningfully cultivate solutions in order to remain sustainable even in the face of Covid-19?
The media, it is critical to point out, was already struggling in critical areas that made it difficult to continue to produce quality media products while remaining economically viable. For instance, many studies had pointed to the failure of some media houses to pay journalists a decent salary, that many female journalists were leaving the newsroom citing difficult working conditions, and several media houses were struggling to invest in credible journalistic enterprises, thus compromising the quality of news.
According to a discussion paper published by DW Akademie, “media viability is the ability of media outlets and media landscapes to produce high-quality journalism in a sustainable way.”
Their holistic perspective covers economics, politics, content, technology, and community. By examining media markets, networks and individual outlets, they attempt to address the question of viability from a wider perspective as opposed to the traditional focus on profitability.
I focus largely on mainstream news media that has been challenged by digital (social) media, rendering its business models obsolete in many ways. It is also these outlets that were largely forced to make quick decisions to cope with Covid-19, which was driving them deeper into financial trouble.
Why media viability in the face of Covid-19?
Focusing on Uganda is critical, because media viability in many contexts is largely affected by existing legal and policy frameworks or the regulatory environment in general. Many of the struggles before Covid-19 highlighted relate to the media industry environment, both political and economic.
Politically, the civic space for free expression and independent media had been narrowing, owing to restrictive legislation, harassment of journalists and limited good will for meaningful political participation. Economically, the declining advertising revenue for most media affected their viability.
Other trends that affected media viability include industry developments like the commercialization of media, convergence of media that shrunk operations, concentration of media ownership that affected plurality, digitization of media that disrupted practice, and increasing globalization of markets that changed the role of communication in markets.
Enter Covid-19: Aggravating the media viability challenge in Uganda
Because Covid-19 found an already fertile ground for disruption based on the issues already discussed, the media was quickly hit. It should be noted that much of the media in Uganda is privately owned and operates as businesses. Even then, we must underscore that the media is a different kind of business, with the public interest still at its heart. Media is thus run in the public trust. The main ways that Covid-19 affected media include:
First, there was imminent scaling down of operations. Whereas the media was granted a special status of essential service providers and allowed to work during lockdown, many media houses such as the Nation Media Group had to decongest the newsroom. Many journalists worked from home, flexible working hours. This had implications for efficiency although the newspaper was still able to remain afloat. The New Vision reduced on its production, putting to bed some outlets. The Observer newspaper folded its print edition for a specific period. While these do not represent the entire media spectrum, it shows that media outlets that are fairly seen to be viable had to quickly respond to a crisis by scaling down.
Second, some media houses had to cut down their number of staff and salaries. In order to remain sustainable, media managers either laid off staff or reduced pay for all. It is not clear to what extent this was the case throughout the industry, but some of the big media actors confirmed having to cut down on their number of staff as well as revise salaries downwards for many. It is important to note that the situation has improved.
Third, there were difficulties in distribution and keeping circulation going. Because of restrictions on movement, media houses also struggled to distribute their products, especially where costs were high and fewer media houses were able to increase their circulation figures. Having to coordinate with security in order to move smoothly was an added cost.
Fourth, media houses faced increased risk of catching Covid-19. Journalism is a contact based profession. Journalists meet people at their convenience to interview them. Journalists find themselves in crowded spaces. And they have to continue to gather news in challenging times. That exposed journalists to the risk of catching Covid-19 and the risk remains high. This affects efficiency, an important ingredient of viability.
Finally, there was disruption of internships for some media houses. Lockdown measures and closure of universities also meant that some students of journalism placed with various media organisations had to be withdrawn. While interns may not add a lot of value because they are deployed to learn, they are useful. Their withdrawal may affect the production of some stories. During the period that universities remained closed, internship programmes were also differed, although some media houses like the Daily Monitor are now inviting interns.
Opportunities for enhancing media viability
It may not be possible to go back to the old ways of news production, and Covid-19 may be around for a while. A lot has changed and some for the good. Leaning on these lessons can provide opportunities for enhancing media viability. My thoughts are that:
First, there is a big window for traditional news media to cultivate public trust that was shrinking. In the face of increased misinformation and disinformation or more generally fake news as the need for information on Covid-19 increased, newspapers and their broadcast counterparts became points of verification.
It is evident the media did not do enough to question the official narratives on Covid-19, but it can begin to do more in terms of providing in-depth analysis of events and asking questions the public may not. Many of the main media houses already have the human resource with which to do this kind of work. Bringing creativity back into reporting and regaining public trust is possible.
Second, the media now has the opportunity to revisit its operations and cluster roles. This will enable journalists to work with a much needed flexibility – working from home for those whose roles may not require them to be in the newsroom every day or stagger their days in office. This flexibility may enable some journalists to put their creativity to work and earn extra income where possible or return to school for further studies while working. The newsroom has in the past operated as a military camp where pressure is the key word. Smarter ways of operation can be cultivated to reduce costs, strategically.
Third, in order to support the new models of operations, media organisations may need to invest in research and revisit their strategic plans. It is not clear how much media houses invest in understanding who their audience is, how to meet their needs or respond in difficult times.
A strong research and development culture is an essential for every media house intent on balancing news production and profit while understanding the nature of markets. It is also the only way by which media houses may cultivate some good ground for media diversity both at the level of content and inclusion of otherwise excluded audiences, as well as supporting multimedia development. Diversity may also be extended to revenue streams to boost advertising or run parallel businesses that feed into news production.
Fourth, while it may seem redundant to suggest that investment in technology is key at a time when media houses are financially struggling, it may be what is needed for the other solutions to work. For people to work from home, they need relevant technology to support their work. This can range from hardware to software for fact verification and cheaper ways to maintain communication.
Fifth, media houses can collaborate more on areas where they face similar existential threats. It is a given that the media is a business and by nature faces competition. But it must cooperate on matters of environmental threats that affect the industry. Collaboration is a big topic for another day, but there are many mechanisms by which this can be beneficial to all.
Finally, Covid-19 also exposed some real skills gaps among journalists: he lack of creativity, initiative, curiosity and ability to multitask. Media houses need to invest in capacity building for journalists, either independently or working together with media development organisations that offer training.
Covid-19 may have offered important tools for revisiting the viability question.
Dr. Emily Maractho also known is a Lecturer of Journalism and Media Studies at Uganda Christian University.