By Ivan Okuda
It is a known fact, of which we take judicial notice, that the media across the world is in crisis.
In the last decade, the media landscape has experienced unprecedented upheaval. Legacy media finds itself competing for audiences and advertising with Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Twitter. The information space has been so radically democratised that the place of journalists and their gate-keeping role is now under test. Jobs are being lost and careers crumbling. Circulation figures are so scary that if I shared them on this page, I would be found liable for causing heart attacks under the ‘but for’ legal test.
How do we cure this? There is no cure really, but we can propose ideas.
In the last few months, I have been reflecting on two theoretical approaches that I find most fascinating: critical political economy and media economics. At the heart of these are attempts to understand the ecology of the press through lenses of historicity and more importantly, the political and economic context in which it exists.
Alan Albarran, in Media Economics: Research Paradigms, issues, and Contributions to Mass Communication Theory, writes that media economics focuses on “how media industries use scarce resources to produce content to satisfy various wants and needs.” And Robert Picard, in Strategic Responses to Media Market Changes, notes that the theory is “concerned with how media operators meet the informational and entertainment wants and needs of audiences, advertisers and society with available resources.”
I have liberally quoted these thought leaders to establish the theoretical framework that underpins my case for editors to think anew about the business of media.
The average editor in Uganda, and indeed world over, is detached from the business side of media operations. Most have no idea how their salaries are paid or what the business side of the newspaper does to keep the media house a going concern. Occasionally, editors are known to throw tantrums and even walk out of meetings when advertising executives attempt to protect clients’ interests. This is for a good reason. Editorial independence and credibility are, after all, central benchmarks of journalism ethics.
However as times change, there must be some radical thinking that embraces a media economics approach to journalism and sheds off the layers of idealism.
Other sectors have notably struck the balance between professionalism and business. Most news editors, unfortunately, are comfortable to mind about the business of the business they operate in as a mere factor of production.
Lawyers in private practice have salaries, rent, and other bills to pay, so a client is not just someone seeking legal advice but a customer feeding into the bottom line. Doctors running private clinics are not only rendering medical services, but are strategic in retaining repeat customers, negotiating medical fees and filing tax returns. Academics and scientists ceased to be purveyors of knowledge and skills only. They are also resource mobilisers, writing proposals, meeting donors over dinner and establishing rapport with prospective funders.
Non-governmental organization leaders find themselves in the same mix. They are burning the midnight oil to keep the NGO afloat, expanding their networks, and in some cases regrettable cases, backstabbing colleagues before funders. It is survival for the fittest.
Therefore the time when all one needed to be a news manager was ability to lead a team, assign reporters, ensure copy is clean and the integrity of the news process is intact, is behind us. Editorial independence without financial sustainability of the paper is meaningless because without the business there cannot be journalism. So saving journalism business must be everyone’s business.
If I sat on an interview panel today, I would be interested in establishing that potential news managers had the same understanding of media economics as they have of their editing abilities. Many can edit, but we need a breed of editors who can contribute to the viability of the media in which they operate.
News managers must, as of matter necessity, be part of the business conversation not as mere spectators, but active players feeding into revenue streams. We need news managers who are time-tested in their ability to mobilise resources, understand media economics and can innovate ways for content to be better commercialised. Editors must understand the business of the media.
It is crisis time. Adapt or die.
This transition is happening in developed media economies. Uganda is only lagging behind.
In my next submission, I will share the different revenue models that are emerging to sustain journalism and can be adapted to suit the Ugandan context.
Ivan Okuda is a lawyer, writer, consultant and KAS Media Africa Scholar at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.