Enforcing traditional journalism principles in the fast-paced online news world

When Kawowo Sports was launched in September 2011 it took Ugandan online news world by storm. Readers, hungry for a greater variety of local sports news, readily subscribed to the site for the latest play stats, profiles and opinions. The site managers met this enthusiasm by ratcheting up their content production to feed the rising demand.

Today, with an average of 350,000 visitors per month, Kawowo Sports is not only focused on the numbers. Mr Joseph Owino, founder of the news site, says that of primary concern is quality and veracity of content produced.

“We have modified our systems to ensure that there are no errors,” Owino says.

Kawowo Sports has recruited editors who review the content to look for facts, crosscheck sourcing and grammar and correct any mistakes.

This focus on editorial precision is atypical amongst Uganda’s online news startups, where more than 40 sites are competing for views in a crowded market. The need to grow large audiences fast in order to attract meaningful advertising has led to the publication of factual errors and misinformation, poorly written copy, plagiarism, and in some cases, falsification of news.

However the tide is turning.

At UG Christian News, a faith-based news startup, building the credibility of their news by ensuring proper editorial procedures are followed is paramount.

Mr Aaron Sseruyigo, the editor of UG Christian News, says online platforms like his are adopting editorial practices used by traditional media to produce quality content. “We do need to stand by a legal and social framework that encourages journalists to respect and follow the established values of their craft,” he says.

Without these controls there is a danger that audiences will lose faith in the platforms, contends Mr Richard Wanambwa of Eagle Online. He says the solution lies in good journalism practices, known to consistently draw readers to his site.

All this, however, comes at a cost. Most of Uganda’s online news startups run on skeleton staff. With small budgets and an even smaller pool of advertisers, few are able to hire good journalists. For those that do, staff retention is a constant challenge as steady salaries and payment of operating costs are not guaranteed.

Ms Suzan Kabarwani the chief editor of Eizooba, a site focused on news from the Bunyoro sub-region, works with a staff of only four correspondents based in Hoima, Kibaale, Kiryandongo and Masindi districts. Periodically she receives content from freelancers in neighbouring districts, but the consistency of this additional news is not guaranteed. For Kabarwani, a small staff is not excuse for sloppiness. She says it is important that all stories published on Eizooba are properly written, sourced and verified.

In Gulu district, Mr Moses Odokonyero the editor of Acholi Times is one of only two permanent staff of the site. Financial constraints mean that he relies on freelance reporters whose work is subjected to the highest editorial standards before it is published.

While there are no such limitations at Kawowo Sports, which has 16 journalists, editors, graphic designers and web managers on its payroll, it is still important to hire the right people and to institutionalise the right journalistic processes. Owino says that in order to improve the quality and consistency of its content, his organisation made a deliberate decision to hire qualified journalists and writers who are passionate and committed to promote local sports.

With the dearth of research on the impact of good editorial systems and quality content on the growth of online startups in Uganda, it is not clear if Kawowo Sports’ strategy will pay off. Nonetheless, Acholi Times’ Odokonyero says the digital media and its current models will be useful in shaping the practice of journalism and its consumption for years to come.

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