Africa and Media in the 21st Century: A Perspective from Southern Africa, By Trevor Ncube

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I think the starting place is to create and build the kind of media that we first turn to when we are looking for authentic and credible content. It cannot be that we are not in control of our narrative. We are the only continent that still looks to other capitals for our key narratives.

Perhaps the best place to start is to ask this simple, if controversial question. What’s wrong with the media in Africa? The equally simple answer is that, by and large Africa’s media lacks reach. It has limited influence.

trevor-ncube-picPut it another way, when Africans want to watch or read ‘global news’, they turn to CNN, BBC, New York Times, etc. Notice, for example, how many African airports are permanently tuned to Sky, CNN, BBC or British football, totally neglecting their own local electronic media.

Perhaps more tellingly, look at how ‘African’ tragedies are simply glossed over. Not because the world doesn’t care. But because Africa has not yet developed the infrastructure for reporting stories such as the devastating drownings of refugee boats. It is surely a great indictment of us as Africa’s media that on a day when 500 Africans perish at sea, the trending story can still be an English football game.

Compare this to how Europe or the US report their own tragedies. Everything else comes to a standstill. The media attention is complete. Practiced. The rituals are age old. Even the absence of dead bodies talks to long held ways of mourning and reporting the dead. These are clearly more than just media conventions, but social ones too.

And that is why we Africans are always complaining that our stories are always misrepresented. Because in the main we leave it to other people to tell. So every year, in the age of Social Media, you can bet on the annual ritual of #theAfricathemedianevershows

And while this hashtag often shows us some remarkable places, the real tragedy of it is that it reminds us how even the most influential Africans believe that the media is something ‘foreign’, out there, working against us.

And that is why it was something of a welcome change for me when #AfricaRising began to trend. Both online and offline. Because it suggested that hope had finally triumphed over hopelessness, over despair. That there was finally another story other than war, famine and chaos. This story was told with understandable euphoria. But also hard numbers to back the tangible and measurable shifts in the fortunes of the continent. But again it was telling that the most often quoted marker of this shift in the fortunes of the continent were two covers of The Economist. Published a decade apart. It didn’t matter whether you were at Davos, or in Lagos, or in Johannesburg.

These covers became a metaphor for the shift. They were the calling card of the Africa Rising Movement. We African media were once again consumers of other people’s narrative. Our job was to be proficient in this narrative. But it was most certainly not ours.

So how do we fix this? Let’s start with the issue of identity, of trading in an aggressively competitive marketplace. I think the starting place is to create and build the kind of media that we first turn to when we are looking for authentic and credible content. It cannot be that we are not in control of our narrative. We are the only continent that still looks to other capitals for our key narratives. And given the extent to which technology has lowered the costs of entering the marketplace, it is imperative that we grab this opportunity.

In concrete terms, we in the media need to be doubling down on our investments in research and development. We can’t leave it to chance to save this industry. The chances of stumbling on a sustainable solution are nearly zero. That means we have to be on top of the Big Data revolution.

What this means is that we should get down to creating the hashtags, write even more books and generate the next mega trends, be it in fashion, art or architecture. Not far from here is the home of the Design Indaba whose founder Ravi Naidoo repeatedly emphasises the importance of the creative industries to power the next economic revolution. If you look at Elon Musk of Tesla, what he brought to the marketplace was an idea. One that he executed with powerful passion. But you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Musk was an American. Because South Africa has not had a plan to claim him and his global narrative as an example of its own excellence. That’s what happens when you have a media that follows, and doesn’t lead.

We need to design and build the kind of media ecosystem that will give us a seat at the table. The Qataris have shown us how quickly it can be done. Al Jazeera is less than two decades old, but its already a media player of global repute. And before you say it is the petro dollars that allowed them to do it, ask yourself why oil rich Nigeria has not done it. Or oil rich Angola. Or resource rich South Africa. And in all these countries, the money that is squandered through corruption and wasteful expenditure is enough to fund several Al Jazeeras. Because we are right in the middle of the most interesting stories of this century. Our novelists and artists tell the world’s most interesting stories.

There’s no reason why these should not be consumed daily across the world, told by African media. And we have the talent. You only need look at how ‘global media’ properties snatch Africa’s best. From Trevor Noah to Imran Garda to Isha Sesay, our finest are out there informing and entertaining global audiences.

In concrete terms, we in the media need to be doubling down on our investments in research and development. We can’t leave it to chance to save this industry. The chances of stumbling on a sustainable solution are nearly zero. That means we have to be on top of the Big Data revolution. We need journalists who are not afraid of coding. We need journalists who are pioneers in the online space. They can’t just be worried about saving their jobs. Because then they will be the first to become irrelevant. Obsolete. It’s an age of new skills and those who adapt to the newsroom of the future will be spoilt for choice in the media marketplace.

But, of course, even as this powerful narrative was gaining momentum, Africa’s political elite were themselves rising to the challenge of the modern media landscape. Whereas in the 70s and 80s, the dictator simply captured the public broadcaster, especially in a coup, now African despots simply shut down the internet, especially WhatsApp and Social Media. That tells you how powerful these tools are.

Which is why we media owners and practitioners have to study and use them for positive social impact. Can you imagine how powerful a medium WhatsApp is? Already private citizens use it to create and pass around their own stories. We urgently need to come up with models that tap into this tried and tested platform.

I want to suggest tonight that this is a space where philanthropic dollars could help. Technology is expensive and the media business models are still evolving. We are essentially trying to be technology companies without the requisite competencies and funding.

And this is why the media shouldn’t be seen as an enemy to Africa’s development narrative. It should be seen as a partner. When the media is weak, or is perceived as irreversibly weak, it can’t play a robust role in Africa’s consolidating democracy.

…foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can play a vital role in training the journalists of the future, because these shifts that are taking place have tremendously important implications for how we inform the world.

Why do I say this? Simply put, unexpected technological disruptions, weak economies and weakened newsrooms make it doubly difficult for the media to speak truth to power. Thus, reducing our effectiveness to promote good governance, transparency and accountability.

But let us not beat about the bush. Corruption is everywhere. It is the only elephant in the room in Africa’s development agenda. If I were a deep pocked philanthropist, I would direct most of my money towards the fight against corruption. ‘Eating’ is the biggest draw-back against development on our continent. Corruption and poor governance are the biggest problems taking resources away from investment in health, education and many other social imperatives on this continent.

It is here especially that foundations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation can play a vital role in training the journalists of the future, because these shifts that are taking place have tremendously important implications for how we inform the world. It cannot be left to entrepreneurs like myself to keep the world informed. Especially at a time of dwindling advertising budgets. At a time of fragmented readership. We need to deliver information that is crucial to strengthening democracy in the best way possible. And if this means that philanthropists must support the emerging state of media, so be it.

In case you think this is a phenomenon peculiar to Africa, reflect on this; The Guardian of London which is owned by the Scott Trust is currently losing a million pounds a month and shedding jobs. The Washington Post is sort of owned by a trust since Jeff Bezos took over a few years back. The purchase of the FT by Japans Nikkei and The Economist by the Agnelli family confirms a similar trend. The fabulously rich and famous will inherit quality media. It’s tough out here.

Which takes me to social media. How does this most distinctive invention of the 21st century affect us news entrepreneurs and journalists? Well, first it makes our job that much easier. Because no longer do we have to wait for deadlines. The deadline is dead. Where we used to wait for the daily or weekly edition to inform an expectant audience, we now live in the age of news as-it-happens. And the news has moved from the bulky computer to the portable phone. But sometimes I get the sense that those of us in traditional media have missed the key lessons from social media. Where social media now does the hard work of ‘breaking news’, ours is to focus on the back story. And go deep. Provide background. Context. Depth. Data. All the things that can’t be done on social media.

For those of us who fear or even resent social media, the truth is that it actually complements what we do. Readers want real time news. And live tweeting or snap chatting a news event is an effective way of doing journalism. It offers zero technological barriers, but enhances the story.

Let’s not forget that social media is an unrivaled distribution mechanism. And it allows for instant engagement with audiences. No longer are audiences ‘out there’ passive. Now they can be part of the gathering and telling of the story. And also of verification. But it also means that a community story can quickly go viral and become international news.

At the heart of the challenge to the dominance of traditional media is a fast changing technology landscape. The technology is both the opportunity and the threat. It has vastly increased our audience footprint. As we have seen in the case of Uber & AirBnB, technology invariably brings disruption. Netflix has decimated the movie rental business. Just a decade ago movie renting was a viable business. Today all the video rental shops have gone.

We are seeing the same thing as old media titles succumb to changes in audience habits and how news is made and distributed. We’ve already seen the loss of many jobs in our industry as ours move from the Industrial to the Knowledge era. Newsrooms are shrinking. The era of the single beat journalist is well and truly over. Now we expect our journalists to multi-task. And be damn good at it. And that’s why re-skilling is such an important factor. It is not an option. Newsrooms that don’t do it are condemning their employees to an uncertain future.

So many people and corporations pay lip service to the importance of a vibrant media to robust democracies and healthy societies. And yet we are already seeing the cost of poor decisions made on the basis of poor quality information.

And again this re-skilling is ever changing. And it is expensive. As newspaper and media owners, we do not have the resources to retrain everyone. And so government must come in. The private sector too. And universities too. But also philanthropists, especially those who appreciate the link between a vibrant media sector and robust democracies.

So many people and corporations pay lip service to the importance of a vibrant media to robust democracies and healthy societies. And yet we are already seeing the cost of poor decisions made on the basis of poor quality information. The internet is not fool proof!

Within my own companies, we were quick to grasp the importance of moving our platform online. So we are justifiably proud that we were first with an online edition of the M&G. Not just a PDF of the street version. But a tangibly different product. One that we soon discovered offered advantage for tweaking a story as new facts emerged or old ones changed that is not available to legacy media. With print, once the edition hits the streets there’s pretty much nothing you can do.

We have not been sitting idle, hoping for things to fix themselves. I notice with pride the extent to which technology has largely rendered borders obsolete for the creation and distribution of content. But more importantly the way it frustrates those who wish to censor. In this case the mobile phone and cloud based services have proven to be a journalist’s best friend. Once a story is in the cloud, even if a police officer or a soldier confiscates the device, it doesn’t matter. This is a truly significant win for journalism.

Perhaps it underlines the importance of freeing the internet from the clutches of telcos that are too close to governments. Because they keep data prices artificially high in order to keep out the masses of our people from participating fully in the democratic discourse. This is not merely a regulatory issue, but a constitutional one.

Which is why in my view, philanthropic organisations have to prioritise efforts to strengthen Africa’s investigative journalism. It’s the most effective way to fight corruption and build a culture of transparency and accountability. I know this may sound crazy, but ask yourself this: What is the point of investing in health infrastructure when the predatory political class are in charge of distributing its benefits? What is the point of investing in a bridge or road when poor governance and corruption will see it rust? What is the point of writing world class constitutions when corrupt politicians and compromised judges gang up to erode their effectiveness?

To me the answer is easy and age old. Invest in quality media to empower an active citizenry to keep the political barbarians at bay. Food for thought, yes, but also a very practical consideration given the pervasiveness of corruption.

I hope I’ve given you a sense of the issues that hold us back as well as the opportunities that we can harness. This is a truly complex matter and any of us who approach it need to do so with requisite humility and curiosity.

Trevor Ncube is Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), which owns newspaper titles in Zimbabwe, and Executive Deputy Chairman of the Mail & Guardian Media Group (South Africa), publishers of one of the leading weekly newspapers, the Mail & Guardian.

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