Media meets digital, what then is the future of journalism in Kenya?

The official launch of the converged Newsroom and KTN News revamped studio at the Standard Group Headquarters along Mombasa Road in Nairobi on November 29, 2021. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

In today's digital age where news is instantaneous, and its consumption is for the here and now, what might our future media houses look like, or more to the point, what is journalism's future?

What is the future of news, and views? These are tough questions in a fast-changing news climate increasingly driven towards a technology-focused bottom-line that could dramatically reshape everything we know about journalism.

Kenya's own media space is not exempt from this challenge. This challenge exists despite our own reputation for quality journalism that harks back to the turn of the 20th century (1901 and onwards, for the avoidance of doubt) as well as generations of media house innovation to accord with the times. Your local mainstream media house today is a multi-media platform that also seeks to be an integrated brand identity spanning print, television, radio and digital in a modern-day Schumpeterian age of "creative destruction".

Yet, in style rather than substance, innovation across Kenya's mainstream media landscape feels like a tactical and operational struggle between the image (TV) and the written word (press) in a context in which the best viewed TV tends to lack context, and the best writing has no audience without pictures. Today's language is all about the "integrated newsroom" where the immediacy of news is a high value commodity, its true accuracy and underlying credibility are "extras" and the rest of what you get is a "viewspaper".

However, it is probably at strategic level that the struggle crystallizes. It isn't only in Kenya but the world over where media has met digital. One recent "future of journalism" trend noted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is "we have moved from a world where media organisations were gatekeepers to a world where media still create the news agenda, but platform companies control access to audiences".

This is, of course, a fairly advanced view. If recent observation is a guide, Kenya's is an emerging "upside down" picture where our mainstream media themselves now source their news from social media platforms. Consider this to be an increasingly prevalent default setting across our high-tech integrated newsrooms.

And if it isn't just disruptive platforms like Meta, Alphabet or Twitter, it's the wider "5th Estate" associated with bloggers, journalists publishing in non-mainstream media and influencers across social media. Hence another trend from the Reuters Institute, "Journalism is...losing the battle for people's attention and in some countries for the public's trust". In Kenya we trust media, but are we really interested? What's its value?

This is not an easy question for our home-grown 4th Estate of journalism (as an established culture of news, storytelling and reflection) and media (as delivery tool, paper or technology-based). It is complicated by a more profoundly disturbing question: is the news relevant to our own histories and cultures, or do Western norms, values and virtues drive the news agenda in our post-colonial state, even with our powerful African accents? America's media serves Americans, China's serves their own, but does ours really serve us?

Then, who is "us" in this picture? Let's look at the future and take Kenya's over 30s out of this equation. Based on casual observation, very few of the 80 per cent of Kenyans born after 1995 consume news offered by our mainstream media. There are three parts to this group. Those who consume headlines through other platforms, but don't go into deeper content, especially on politics. From these platforms, there's lots of fake news too. Similarly, those who consume TV news through non-mainstream platforms but don't go further as well. Then those who follow radio for the talk shows and call-ins rather than actual news.

Which leaves online, where they all are, but it's not in the online part of mainstream media. Hence the double-whammy for the top-line; no eyeballs for adverts, no interest in actual content (paywalls goodbye!)

It doesn't help that journalism no longer feels like the true calling that teaching arguably continues to be. As noted earlier, Kenya has a proud history and record of journalistic excellence across Africa. Here is a twist on a famous adage - "those who will, do; those who won't, teach; those who won't teach, write". This wasn't the usual hierarchical order of things to do, but a smart allocation of our own human capital.

That's not the case today where the hardware of integrated newsrooms is a bottom-line driver of an ostensibly lower cost economic and business model of journalistic software. Consider this alongside a third trend that the Reuters Institute identifies: "the business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures".

Beyond the business imperative, our context is such that government wants to do its own advertising. So smart storytelling, nuanced narrative, incisive insight and cutting commentary don't quite fit this picture. It could be that, ultimately, we might be pursuing the wrong line of inquiry in Kenya. In raising questions about the future of journalism in a digital age, or the more technologically-driven future of media newsrooms, maybe the real one should be "what is the future of news"? Perhaps this is where to begin.

There are no quick fixes, but perspective is always useful. The obvious one is to look at where banks have gone in the face of fintech. Bill Gates once said that "banking is necessary, banks are not". The industry is responding to this "banking without banks" paradigm. For the media house, the equivalent paradigm to reflect on is "news without newspapers", and far more radically at the absolute end of the scale, "news without newsrooms". Simply, "news as a consumer experience, not a building". What might that look like?

As the Collins English dictionary reminds us, news (an uncountable noun) is "information about a recently changed situation or a recent event". So, if we go back to the idea that content is king then journalism still matters. In a Rhodes University webinar on reclaiming African journalism in the public interest held in early May this year, as reported by the Mail and Guardian, "solutions journalism", "sustainable journalism" and "slow journalism" were identified by participants as critical elements of an African media future.

Solutions journalism? This is not PR, advocacy or "good news" writing. It is an ambitious journalistic quest beyond highlighting and headlining societal problems towards capturing solutions that society is pursuing to fix these problems and identifying lessons going forward. In short, the story after the "if it bleeds, it leads" headline. In an Africa, and Kenya, with many questions, this might be one path to answers.

Sustainable journalism? Sustainable is the operative word, so this is about environment, green issues and climate change, but it extends to other special interest areas including gender or conflict-sensitive journalism. This journalism brings sustainability into the mainstream of discourse; news reporting, not just analysis, on the everyday inter-generational impacts of actions for people, planet, prosperity and peace.

Slow journalism refers to the wider "slow movement" that emphasizes quality over speed. It has emerged from the idea of storytelling that balances the skill in presenting the narrative with the reality in describing the facts. Longer and more in-depth, it responds to the 24-hour news cycle into which the mainstream newsrooms have been drawn in order to compete with their traditional 4th and emerging 5th estate rivals.

As one slow-journalism website proclaims, "we value being right above being first; tell you how stories end and cut through the white noise" without "press releases, kneejerk punditry (and) advertorial nonsense". This is where the number-crunchers and shareholders remind us that media has a business bottom line.

Yet, if content is king, what does this public interest model - solutions, sustainable and slow - mean for the skill and technology set, and potential return on investment in the integrated newsroom that is our "new black"? Could this be the new core of the wider media business model that retains its 24-hour lens? Is this the place where we might build the participatory/citizen and data journalism that Kenya sorely needs? Isn't this where the future of news is already headed, into decentralized and personalized spaces of self-selection?

On the supply-side, is this the unexplored journalism that brand-builds to secure new consumer interests, especially among "young and restless" Africans searching for something different and more than YouTube, TikTok or Instagram? Especially given that our future socio-economics is increasingly about digital and green transitions into which agriculture, industry, services and society at large must now fit. This is the new world, Kenya included, seeking media platforms built on content that walks along, or ahead of, this change.

Here's what the Reuters Institute concluded in recent research on media in the South, "the news publishing industry has a problem. 'Shiny Things Syndrome' - the obsessive pursuit of technology in the absence of clear and research-informed strategies - is the diagnosis offered...the cure suggested involves a conscious shift by news publishers from being technology-led, to audience-focused and technology-empowered".

Not news without newspapers or viewspapers or newsrooms, but news as an informational, learning and sharing audience experience on your media gadget of choice. That's what today is saying about tomorrow.