A marketplace of media ideas

Tolu Ogunlesi summarizes the ‘Big Ideas’ arising from discussions at the two-day African Media Leaders Forum 2009, which took place in Lagos, Nigeria, in November.

THE CENT AND THE CONTENT

Monetising content – especially in the Age of the Internet – will remain one of the media’s biggest challenges.

It was the recurring query in the Forum’s discussions: “How do we monetise this content?”

Courtesy_www.azcu.org

John Lavine, Professor and Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, USA advocated a shift in perspective; from a “consumer media” outlook to a “business media” outlook. He argued for a micropayment model, saying that farmers for example would not mind paying a small fee for “farm information” (improved varieties of seed and water usage); and that a penny from each of a million people is a more sustainable revenue model than a dollar from ten persons. He classified audiences into two: “general” and “deep.” The general audience, he said, will be attracted, and satisfied, by the breaking news and the “go-to-do” information, while the deep audience will pay for premium content – “deeper news” and “analyses”.

What is certain is that most media businesses will have to struggle with balancing the journalism and the business. The observation by Robert Kabushenga, CEO of Uganda’s New Vision, that: “New [media] versus old [media] is a problem of the newsroom, not the boardroom,” helps to illustrate the often-conflicting realities faced by the content-producing and the content-marketing wings of any media business.

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THE OBAMA EFFECT

The internet can make a huge difference

Arianna Huffington photo courtesy boston.com

“Where it not for the internet, Barack Obama would not be President.” Thus said Arianna Huffington, co-founder and Editor-in-chief of the political news website and content aggregator, Huffington Post. And there are those who would argue that without people like Ms. Huffington, Barack Obama would not be President [The online-only Huffington Post was widely acknowledged as one of Mr. Obama’s most fervent supporters, and during the campaign there was a “Huffington Post Readers for Obama” group]. To get an idea of the size of the HP’s ‘empire’, ‘Off the Bus’, its Citizen Journalism initiative set up to cover the 2008 United States elections, utilised the services of 13,000 volunteers across the country. According to Ms. Huffington, the Huffington Post currently receives thirty million unique visitors a month, and in October 2009 alone it received 2 million comments.

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THE LAW OF ‘KATO’

Corruption remains a major challenge across the continent

‘Kato’ is a Liberian corruption of the French word, cadeau [translated gift or present]. Kenneth Y Best, Founder and CEO of the 28-year-old Liberian Observer Corporation explained that a lot of what passes as journalism in Liberia today is no more than a series of business transactions. “In many of the newspapers you can’t get anything published without paying something.” What the Liberians call “kato” their Nigerian counterparts would refer to as “brown envelopes”, and the situation is the same across much of the continent. “Even if you don’t ask, you will be given, or at least offered” might justifiably be said to be the First Law of Kato.

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THE STATE VERSUS THE MARKET

The problem is sometimes not what we think it is

One of the tweets that Arianna Huffington posted live during the Forum was the statement by Pius Njawe, CEO and Founder of Cameroon’s Le Messager, that he had been arrested 126 times in the last thirty years.

Mr. Njawe also added that for the past six years he has been trying – unsuccessfully – to launch a radio station in Cameroon. The situation is not much different in Zimbabwe. Trevor Ncube, CEO of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, said: “In Zimbabwe I have been waiting for 9 months to be granted a license to operate a daily newspaper.” He added that there are 3 other papers on the queue. Best’s Liberian Observer Corporation has been shut several times by the Liberian Government, apart from surviving a brutal civil war.

All of these underline the significant challenges that media operating on the African continent face from the state.

But there are those who see it differently. “The biggest threat to media freedom on the [African] continent is not the state but the market,” declared Andrew Mwenda, CEO of Uganda’s The Independent Magazine. He argued that in the last two decades, not less than 50 newspaper business have collapsed, but none due to repression as the Ugandan government has not shut down any newspaper business since 1988.

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PROFIT FROM PARTNERSHIP

Applying innovative thinking to the media business can often provide surprising results

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“The civil society sector and the media need to collaborate more,” Sandra Obiago, Executive Director of the Lagos-based NGO, Communicating for Change (CFC), told Forum participants.

Michael Daka, Founder and Director of Zambia’s Breeze 99.6 FM, exemplifies this perfectly. According to him, 31 per cent of Breeze’s revenues currently come from programming sponsorships from organisations keen to reach as large an audience as possible. Instead of the traditional approach of organising rallies, he said, these organisations have now discovered that radio will reach a much larger audience. But the condition, he added, for such partnership is that “values must agree” and that there must be a convergence between “what radio stations think is important and what partners think is important.” One of the programmes currently being sponsored on Breeze, according to him, is one that provides peasant farmers with information on planting, harvesting and marketing their products. He describes Breeze as a unique “hybrid model” (“commercial by structure and ownership; community by operations and practice”).

Things are now looking even brighter, with the coming on board of a new partner, from Europe, through a Zambian Chamber of Commerce business-to-business (B2B) partnership. The partner will provide ninety percent of the project cost, while Breeze’s own investment – and repayable portion of the project cost – will be only ten percent. On the basis of the partnerships, sees an “absolutely bright” future for Breeze.

In far-away America the Huffington Post is also exploring the potentials of a synergy between media and not-for-profit. In March 2009 the Post set up the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a special “not-for-profit” arm of the Huffington Post set up specially to fund investigative journalism, which, in the words of Ms. Huffington, is typically “long and expensive.” The initiative is funded by the Huffington Post and the Atlantic Philanthropies, an American not-for-profit organisation.

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NETWORKING

Journalists need to increasingly find ways to build networks and support structures

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“Until last year there was no such forum [as this] where media owners would sit down and exchange ideas,” said Amadou Mahtar Ba, President of the AllAfrica Global Media, a content provision and news aggregation service. Ba is also the Acting Executive Director of the African Media Initiative, newly established to “[foster] opportunities to strengthen the media’s ability to supply independent and reliable information that will empower African people, guide decision-making, and spur development and growth.” There are a number of organisations on the African continent and beyond that provide opportunities for media professionals to meet, support and defend one another; including the Accra-based Media Foundation for West Africa, the Africa Office of the International Federation of Journalists, and the Copenhagen-based International Media Support, which does significant work in Africa. A number of these organisations were represented at the Lagos Forum.

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SACRED RULES

Journalism remains essentially about timeless principles

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To celebrate the 100th year anniversary of the establishment of the UK Guardian, and his 50th year as editor, CP Scott in 1921 wrote an essay, titled ‘A hundred years’, from which emerged a statement that could well pass for one of the ‘Ten Commandments’ of ethical, responsible journalism: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”Echoing those words, Arianna Huffington told the audience “there’s nothing wrong with having passionate opinion”, but telling the truth is the journalist’s “only responsibility.” She referred to the “misleading information” about Saddam Hussein’s WMD capabilities that regularly appeared on the New York Times cover pages before and during the invasion of Iraq as an example of the damage that irresponsible journalism can do. She also accused the mainstream traditional media of allow itself to get caught up with “cheerleading” Wall Street so that it failed to acknowledge or pay attention to other crucial events that were taking place. “It is the role of the journalist to keep the government and society accountable,” Kenneth Best told the audience. And Trevor Ncube, referring to editorial pages, said: “We cannot afford to be ambivalent on certain issues.”

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