I recently returned from the Southern Sudan capital of Juba where I had gone to assess journalism training needs on behalf of an international grant maker.
One phenomenon struck me at all the newspapers I visited—the sheer inexperience in the newsroom occasioned by high staff turnover.
At one of the leading dailies, the most experienced reporter has worked in journalism for two years. He is 24. And that’s the average age of the reporters. Their average journalism experience is one year.
The same pattern held out in most of the other newsrooms. In some cases, the editors are as inexperienced as their direct reports.
This problem appears to be particularly pronounced in post-conflict countries. We have seen it in Uganda, in Rwanda, and in Burundi. Earlier this year, I observed, based on compelling anecdotal evidence, that anywhere in the neighbourhood of 75 percent of the journalists who covered the 2006 election in Uganda were not only covering their first multiparty election but presidential election too.
Make no mistake. The media world is full of numerous examples of young people who have had a lasting impact on journalism, and society, especially in this new media age. Some of the world’s most influential bloggers still live with their parents.
But inexperience in the newsroom is a major problem that in some ways dwarfs the political and legal constraints that African journalists operate under. My friend Andrew Mwenda of The Independent has in the past argued in private conversations that high staff turnover creates the problem of low ‘institutional memory’ in newsrooms.
He is right. It is difficult to maintain consistency in both the media product and values that its producers stand for when the group has not held together for long enough.
It is no accident that Kenya’s Daily Nation and Uganda’s New Vision are the most consistent newspapers in the region at least in terms of design and presentation. Both newspapers have far more long-serving reporters and editors than many of their competitors.
Joseph Were, editor of The Independent in Kampala, says what I saw in Southern Sudan is what’s happening in Uganda. “You will find some senior people in the newsroom, alright, but below them you don’t see many people who are going to replace them,” he said. “Are we seeing the end of the last generation of career journalists? That worries me.”
James Tumusiime, the Managing Editor of The Observer in Kampala, calls high staff turnover in newsrooms and occupational mobility in journalism “a tragedy” for the industry. “We (the current crop of editors in Uganda) should be the reporters. Our editors would have must less work to do and the owners would not worry as much about legal issues and the like”.
Tumusiime often laughs at the fact that with 14 years experience in journalism, he is among those considered the veterans. Elsewhere, veterans have been in the trenches for 25-30 years.
What causes high staff turnover in our newsrooms?
Tumusiime blames it on poor pay and poor working conditions in the newsrooms, which, are in turn related to wider structural problems in society. In Uganda, he says, because the culture of reading a newspaper died during the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s, newspapers are not paying their staff as well as they should. “It makes the media unattractive for staff,” Tumusiime says. “Today people who leave the university want to work in MTN.” MTN is the country’s leading cellular service provider.
The Independent’s Were blames it on “less focus on journalism and more focus on making money”. He adds: “People don’t care about journalism. They only care about it to the extent that it’s a plank to sell advertisements and make money.” That’s why, Were goes on, marketing and advertising executives advance much faster than journalists. “The journalists feel frustrated so they move on to public relations and others go into rearing ducks.”
The other tragedy, he adds is even those that stay end up not caring much about their journalism in this era of market-driven journalism when the views of advertising and marketing chiefs carry more weight on headline selection.
According to Tumusiime, the effects of the staff high turnover in our newsrooms are “obvious on the quality of our journalism. There is too much mediocrity in the newsroom.”
What is to be done about this problem?
“It’s complex,” Tumusiime admits. “Perhaps we should take look at how those who have done well in terms of retaining staff have done it.”
My own sense is that beyond addressing pay and working conditions, newsroom managers must figure out ways of making their journalism more intellectually rewarding and satisfying for the journalists.
About the Author: Dr. Mwesige is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Media Excellence. He has worked as Group Training Editor for the Nation Media Group, head of the Department of Mass Communication at Makerere University where he was also a senior lecturer, and executive editor of the Monitor.