Covering Africa in a rapidly evolving digital landscape

It is a very tough time to be a journalist. It is a very challenging time for the media. I’m not talking about just the African continent, but all around the world- the industry appears to be in turmoil.

Let’s take a look at this…

Screenshot of newspaper headlines

Those are headlines from around the world over the last few weeks. From Uganda to Kenya, to the UK and the US, large media houses have announced massive restructures for various reasons.

Economic challenges have triggered a number of these, but most of them are driven by a need to transform due to changes in the media landscape.

I left Uganda 20 years ago to join the BBC in London. I was a fresh graduate who had been moonlighting as a journalist with various media houses – including Mama FM, and the Monitor.

When I started, the corporation was undergoing what was described at the time as revolutionary change. That meant it was phasing out broadcast and editing technology that had been used since the 1970s and 80s (tape machines) and introducing computer editing software.

I know many of you were probably not born yet- so I’ll briefly explain.

We used to edit tape or sound- by cutting it with a razor blade and then stitching it together with cello tape. That was the tape machine.

Picture of a tape machine

I thought it was genius. But I remember being terrified while I was doing my training- because I couldn’t get my head around that piece of technology.

Now Interestingly- many of us thought at the time that THAT was as modern as broadcasting could get.

Those were the days before social media- when a story would break in a remote part of the continent – and we’d get to learn about it 24 hours or even 48 hours later. And it would still be news.

Those were the days we used to fix appointments to listen to our favourite radio or watch our favourite television soap episodes.

And unfortunately, if you missed it, it was gone. You had to rely on the perspective of someone who managed to catch it or wait until the next broadcast, which was most likely to be the next day. It was back in the day when we’d await the morning newspaper to get news about an event that happened the day before.

I’ll talk about technology in a moment, but let’s first ponder on a few questions:

  • Did you know that by 2050, two in every five children born in the world will be born in Africa?
  • Did you know that Africa is the world’s youngest continent?
  • Did you know that nearly 70% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25?
  • Did you know that the median age of our population here in Uganda is about 16 years old?

You might be wondering why I’m talking about population.

Well, the last decade has seen a seismic shift in Africa’s demographic. That demographic is, in fact, the majority of our population. From an editor’s perspective- that is the audience we are targeting. When we produce programmes, and news content, regardless of what platform- you must remember that most of the consumers are under 25- and in Uganda— we’d say they are probably between 16-17 years old.

It’s scary… Isn’t it?

A couple of years ago, I was asked by Aga Khan University’s Media Innovation Centre—for my thoughts about how the next couple of years would unfold for the media in Africa.

And I said then- that the simple and yet terribly complex questions for us journalists are: WHAT is news to this often-misunderstood generation?

How do they consume it? And, importantly- how do they engage with it?

It is not an exaggeration to say that the future existence of traditional news organisations will depend on how well they understand and answer these questions.

This is a complex audience – mainly because of the times they are living in.

They are not going to do what we did, that is, sit down at an appointed time to get news on the radio or television. They are unlikely to buy newspapers.

They most likely will get it on demand- at a time that suits them.

For many of them, social media is their news platform.

This mobile and restless generation is not necessarily loyal to News brands – they want information.

So, the digitalization of the media industry has been driven by the changing behaviour and expectations of our current audiences- especially this younger generation —-that demands instant access to content anytime, anywhere.


And they have it in their pockets- because the internet and social media disrupted the flow of information. This includes the direction it flows, the speed and, my goodness- the volume of information available!

What would be big news on the 9 pm bulletin – is no longer ‘News’. And I am talking about the traditional concept of news – the 5Ws plus H.

By the time they tune in at 9 pm, most of them will almost certainly already know the What, When and Where.

They’ll probably be more interested in the Who, the Why, and perhaps the How.

Unless you are LIVE at the scene of the story—or it is an original or investigative story—it is very unlikely that they will be hearing your topline for the first time.

They will have gotten the basics from social media- almost in real-time. Or even from citizen journalists via chat apps like WhatsApp, Telegram and others

So, technology has not only changed the way we consume news content, it has also transformed the information ecosystem.

It has democratised this space and dislodged traditional journalists from what was previously an exclusive role of agenda-setting.

This can now be done by anyone with a following on social media.

Agendas can also be manipulated by social platforms- which have assumed the role of “editor in chief” as they control the algorithms which rank content based on some opaque criteria. Even if they don’t produce the content themselves.

So, you could argue that they have the final say on what audiences see and engage with.

Business models

Technology has also disrupted business models. The pandemic exposed various sectors that had, quite frankly, already been struggling.

Many media houses have traditionally relied on advertising as a main source of revenue, and this dropped significantly over that period.

This is in addition to either stagnating or declining audiences. So, it’s been a struggle for media houses – especially those that do not have diversified sources of income.

And just when we thought we could leverage on the audiences built by social media platforms – the tech giants also appear to be going through their own uncertainty.

Facebook’s parent company META recently announced massive cuts…


And I would like to think we have all been following the debate around Twitter- since it was taken over by the billionaire Elon Musk.

Mr Musk describes himself as a ‘free speech absolutist’ and argues that he wants Twitter to be a genuine forum for free speech.

He is proposing to, amongst others remove the blue tick- that is used to verify accounts.

He argues that “widespread verification will democratise journalism and empower the voice of the people.”

So, he is on a mission to elevate citizen journalism- to try and break what he describes as “mainstream media’s monopoly on the flow of information”.

He doesn’t believe truth and objectivity should be a preserve of the mainstream media.

And unfortunately, it’s not only Musk who holds this view.

We are living in a more polarised world.

Journalism has been politicised. It appears to have become much easier for Populists, conspiracy theorists, bots, trolls, and repressive governments — even here in Africa, to undermine and discredit the media as a force for accountability.

They dismiss news perceived as unfavourable to them- as ‘fake news’. This is no doubt diminishing trust in journalism.

Even established facts can now be challenged- by sowing doubt into the minds of the public with so-called “alternative facts”.

We all witnessed what happened during the pandemic with particularly the debate around the vaccines.

 It’s, therefore increasingly becoming difficult to filter disinformation.

So, can we say with the inexhaustible amount of information we have, our audiences are better informed?

You could argue that this democratisation of information has NOT only led to an information divide, but it has become even more challenging to distinguish between what is fact or fiction.

If we cannot distinguish between fact and fiction, can we legitimately claim to be better informed?

So, with diminishing audiences, diminishing revenues, diminishing trust and diminishing credibility – is the media facing an existential threat?

Can we survive this uncertainty?

What do we need to do to remain relevant in this increasingly volatile and crowded marketplace?

I am optimistic that these challenges present some incredible opportunities for the industry.

But first- we need to confront the new reality that has forced many industries to digitally transform. Look at the banks, the telecom industry- which started out selling airtime. Many had to adapt to the market and begin selling data. When I first moved to the UK, we used to buy CDs, and that market was disrupted by Apple- with its downloads, it then disrupted itself with providing streaming as an option. So, we need to adapt. Digital transformation is no longer OPTIONAL.

We cannot indefinitely hold onto the old ways of working otherwise we risk becoming irrelevant to this generation.

Digital transformation is not easy, because it involves making extremely tough business and strategic decisions, the kind of decisions that we have seen announced across the industry over the last few weeks.

This includes reconfiguring operating models, rethinking value chains and adapting them to the new digital world.

Digital transformation is a painful but necessary process that we need to mentally prepare for – because it is inevitable.

We cannot predict the future. But I’m optimistic that in spite of the pain, the opportunities are immense and exciting.

I’ve personally found Linear platforms like television and radio to be traditionally formulaic. It’s difficult to experiment with them.

Digital journalism offers us a blank canvas to experiment and innovate with storytelling and formats- whether it’s video, audio or even text.

It’s more versatile- and you can paint the canvas in a way that has never been painted before. This should be heaven for creatives. So take risks, experiment and don’t be afraid to fail. For every successful innovation we have seen, there will have been several failed ones- that didn’t make the cut.

Research shows that Sub Saharan Africa is the only region where Television as a platform is projected to grow.

The same research shows that neither TV nor radio will decline to zero very soon. I guess because of the state of our technology development here on the continent. BUT they will not grow.

So, if we are looking for growth- if we are looking for sustainable business models—-we need to be thinking beyond the confines of traditional media.

Content is still king. But why would I buy your newspaper tomorrow morning- leading with a news event that happened today – with no value added? In my view, the concept of news has changed. We heard the what, when, where, who today. We need the why and how tomorrow. So we have to be original or ensure we add value.

Content is still king because it has to be worth my data or my MBs as we say here in Uganda.

And I say this because despite the challenges our continent still faces- with limited internet penetration, poor connectivity with high data costs, unaffordable smartphone devices—-we do have a large chunk of the population online.

In January this year, there were around 14million internet users in Uganda- that’s 29 percent of the population.

This is not a small number- and it is projected to grow, as companies and governments invest in infrastructure. An opportunity waiting to be tapped. But remember- the content must be worth my data, and my time. Offer me content I cannot find elsewhere. Give me a very strong reason to come to you!

Reaching young people has always been challenging for the media. But right now, as I said earlier- we have no option because they are the current and future audience. We need to understand the needs of our audiences.

Investing in research is very crucial in understanding audiences and their needs.

WHO IS that 20-year-old man in Kawempe or Kamuli?

What are the issues that matter to him in his world? How can we make him engage with the issues outside his world – that he doesn’t understand, but needs to know- because they will affect him?

I think the last couple of years have taught us that our people need to know how interconnected this world is. When the coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, many thought- well it’s very far away, and it’s a Chinese problem.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, it was the same reaction. I don’t need to go into the impact both events have had on our audiences here in Uganda. But have we as journalists explained to them why their lives are getting harder?

Why has the cost of fuel and gas gone up? The cost of living? Have we drawn a link between the impact of that conflict to the daily lives of ordinary people to make them understand it better?

Such analysis and context reporting will reaffirm the importance of journalism to the day-to-day lives of the general public.

Traditionally journalists have used their strong sense of judgement to determine what their audiences might be interested in. With all its flaws- social media offers us an incredible opportunity for social listening. You can easily get a pulse of what people are talking about, searching about, and interested in. So, an invaluable way of influencing ongoing conversations and discussions.

It’s an open-source goldmine. At the BBC, we’ve produced several award-winning journalism pieces that were based purely on material already available on social media.

One of my favourites was this one. How many of you remember this documentary? If you’ve never watched it- please go and look it up on YouTube.

Anatomy of a killing

“The ANATOMY of a killing” …. that was a film produced by BBC Africa Eye.

This was based on a video that had gone viral—-showing a couple of women with young children being executed by men in military fatigues.

Even if it was in the public domain- it was not clear- where it happened, who these women were, and who the perpetrators were.

There was some speculation that it might be in northern Nigeria. Some suggested it had happened in Mali.

So, this is what BBC Africa Eye and a couple of partners set out to investigate.

It was painstaking- analysing the people in the video, the weapons and the uniforms. They also analysed the terrain where the incident happened.

Their investigation revealed that the men were part of the Cameroonian army.

 They were also able to identify the exact individuals who pulled the triggers. The Cameroonian government initially dismissed the video as “fake news”.

But after reviewing the detailed and comprehensive evidence. They announced that they had arrested seven soldiers in connection with the killing. Three of them had already been identified in the video- by the BBC.

The investigation was hugely impactful. First- it went viral and was viewed more than 15million times in just a few days.

It was picked up by media houses globally and the Columbia journalism review described it as masterclass in how to identify video using digital tools.

The video also inspired a new wave of Open-source investigators across the continent.

So, we can seize such opportunities- to produce ground-breaking investigations using material that’s already available online.

I mentioned the politicisation of the media- by populist leaders, by repressive governments, and by conspiracy theorists……which has increased community pressure on the media.

But this apparent increase in disinformation and misinformation that’s motivated by several

interests—-including political and economic —- is not just a threat to journalism. I think it also highlights the indispensable values of traditional journalism.

During the pandemic at the BBC, we saw one of the biggest increases in audience figures- with many of them searching for information and pillar content about the coronavirus. This was right across BBC output.

That period demonstrated that a large sector of the public still values the role played by traditional media.

We can therefore continue to play the role of fact-checking and debunking fake news, and helping our audiences separate fact from fiction- as there is likely to be a continued demand for quality and trustable news as these threats increase.

Who knows- our online audiences might even want to pay for quality news content in future- as the paywall is one area that many African online platforms have struggled with.

The journalists- whether in print, broadcast or even online- don’t resist the change. Any opportunity to upskill is a bonus and enables you to become more versatile as a multimedia modern journalist.

Develop an interest in the trends in the industry. Don’t leave this to the executives or strategists. You must have an idea of where the next disruption is likely to come from. If you conducted a self- auditing exercise today- would you say your skills are still relevant to today’s market?  Don’t be complacent- or you risk becoming obsolete.

I like to believe that the generations before us had to reinvent their ways of working- from the days of the printing press revolution.

History has shown that the greatest and indeed revolutionary innovations were inspired by challenges.

So, these challenges present a fantastic opportunity to re-think the way we practice journalism.

Let us use this opportunity to reinvent the role of journalism- and play a part in shaping what modern journalism should look like over the next century. And I hope you find this challenge as exciting — as much as I do.

Racheal Akidi is the Head of East Africa languages for BBC World Service. She delivered a keynote speech at the Uganda National Journalism Awards on 14 December 2022 at Mestil Hotel in Kampala. 

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