There is a deathly silence in newsrooms. Empty chairs eerily stick out of deserted work stations like tombstones and crosses in a graveyard.
The muted chatter from huge TV screens hanging on walls, like direful props in a horror movie, is unnervingly reminiscent of a dirge at a cemetery.
It is a sombre and sobering reality: Traditional media as we know it is dying if it hasn’t given up the ghost already.
Journalists are shuffling around like zombies, uncertain of what awaits at the next turn. The breezy swagger of wielding a mighty pen has been reduced to a forlorn air of uncertainty.
Everyone seems to be bracing for the thin string holding an axe over their heads to finally snap and split their skulls into the struggling anguish of redundancy and joblessness.
It is ironical. What is hammering the nails on this profession’s coffin, that is. Covid-19. Good journalists don’t kill a story. That’s our badge of honour, a code of pride. Yet, absurdly, it’s the story, the coronavirus pandemic, which is killing journalists and journalism — a classic case of man biting the dog.
So, whither is journalism wandering? Is it the end of the road? Not at all. The problem, if you ask me, is with the business of journalism, not the profession of journalism.
Unfortunately, most scribes’ careers and livelihoods are staked on media houses, corporate entities that have to be answerable to shareholders, investors and creditors.
When you get the 2-page letter
The bottom line is any business’ pulse. If that heartbeat flatlines into the red, there is no business to speak of.
So, when you get a two-page letter that pussyfoots around its intention before finally cutting to the chase and dropping the bombshell that you have been laid off, it is, to quote Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, ‘nothing personal - just business.’
The matter of empathy in showing someone the door is, however, a story for another day.
Technically, a corporate entity is insentient and hence apathetic, but like a nation, organisations are social entities comprised of and enlivened by people with emotional sensibilities.
The business of journalism in Kenya is being forced to reckon with an inevitable reality that media managers ignored, advertently or unwittingly — that the revenue generation and content distribution models were archaic wine bags that cannot contain the restless, full-bodied swirl of new wine — the new, mobile audience that is interactive and beholden to no entity or brand.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought media businesses to heel. In reality though, even before Covid-19 happened, media houses were already thrashing, struggling to stay afloat in a sea of receding revenues and migrating audiences.
The Kenya Media Landscape Report released by TIFA Research in July last year painted a very grim picture of the industry.
So, essentially, media business, and journalism by extension, can be said to be in a self-correcting Darwinian phase. Dinosaurs, unfortunately, will have to die and become extinct. Or evolve into new species.
Media houses are struggling to catch up with an audience that is already way ahead. Journalists too have to find innovative ways to engage this audience.
Enter, Trevor Noah and Jalang'o
It’s interesting how the likes of Trevor Noah, Jordan Klepper, Hasan Minhaj (US) and Jonathan Pie (UK) are generating, packaging and delivering content in a humorous and engaging format that most journalists have been unable to master or execute, probably due to the limited, structured, dry and straight-jacket programming and house style limitations of mainstream media.
These are supposed to be comedians, but they are delivering credible, analytical pieces without the yawny drag of talking heads or the he-said-she-said humdrum.
Locally, Jalang’o has been trying to follow that same path ever since he left Milele FM.
These jesters are not just competing with media houses for sources, they are also bugging out with audiences, sackfuls of money leaving journalists beached with envy.
This must be how taxi drivers felt when Uber invaded their turf.
Warring on the same old battleground of advert placements in print and broadcast media in a cut-throat competitive environment just won’t cut it anymore.
That battle has moved to the digital front, where competition is not just with corporate peers. There is something horribly efficient about the digital age for the media, pronounced even more by its dogged obsession with data and analytics.
Nothing is hidden and advertisers have access to data to assess the value they are getting for their money.
Small and nimble operations have an advantage in this terrain. Mainstream media are losing businesses to one-man digital operations or outfits with less than 10 employees and recurrent expenditure that is less than what some companies spend on tea.
Media ownership has been redefined, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts no longer just pretenders to the throne. These are now formidable contenders. It-is-what-it-is. Media is getting as fragmented as their audience.
Media houses must, therefore, diversify their revenue streams. The business of media, the model, the real crux of the matter, has to change.
Unfortunately, our experimentations with varieties like free newspapers are still hinged on corporate and government advertisement. These already overdrawn wells are now silty with reduced advertisement expenditure and can’t compete with the shift to digital space and prioritisation of broadcast media, specifically radio.
Ultimately, sustainable income can only be guaranteed by reader revenues. That is why the likes of The New York Times’ subscription model has been a hit. It is a case study every media house wants to ape by erecting paywalls to fence off their online content.
The subscription model of the hard copy is a winding path for our local operations that will require a systemic overhaul of distribution through vendors, to door-to-door delivery.
Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, that change can begin slowly through the partnerships with Safaricom for Sh20 subscription to local newspapers.
This is progressive, but can only achieve so much, as it is a typical case of old wine in new a bag. It’s the same physical paper being distributed online, where the audience may not necessarily be fully receptive.
At least the companies can, however, cut down on printing cost.
But there are still trimmed-team options, like The Guardian’s reader contribution model, The Conversation Africa’s sponsored model or the membership model that has been so successfully executed by South Africa’s Daily Maverick.
These are tough times no doubt. Media houses will have to drop the competitive rivalry of the glory days of the 1980s.
Transport and printing costs can be cut significantly through collaborations. This can be extended even to content generation, the mainstay of any media business.
It’s that serious. Pricey content that is generated by investigative journalists may ultimately have to be sourced through collaboration and cooperation.
BBC and Al-Jazeera are already doing this with broadcasters and independent investigative media houses around the world like John Allan-Namu’s Africa Uncensored and nonconformist muckrakers like Anas Aremeyaw Anas of Ghana. Some of these content is then made available to other broadcasters globally.
Long live the King!
But journalism is not dying. Not by a long shot. There is always room for good storytelling, communicators and news packaging.
Tomorrow’s journalist is a collaborator, working with a lean innovative team. Heck, this journalist can also be a digital nomad, who works in collaboration with robots in a gig economy to crunch numbers and push data journalism to a new height.
Journalists in this changing landscape will distinguish themselves as multimedia practitioners, and reliable sources of credible information given the exponential rise in fake news perpetrated through social media. That journalism will keep the torch burning. It is what their training should uphold.
For those who will still colonise the shrinking newsroom habitat of media behemoths, their fate will depend on those businesses’ abilities to change on the go, diversify revenue streams and fully exploit the potential of the digital space.
Not just through social media posturing and snazzy news sites, but by profitably monetising the work of journalists. Content, after all, is still king. But it has to be trustworthy and engaging.
The King is dead. Long live the King!
-Paul Omondi is a Revise Editor with The Standard Group and a graduate student at Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications