By Stuart Dickinson: It’s no secret that the journalism industry is facing hardship. Client journalism that decorates and legitimises the power of political parties, widespread disinformation and misinformation, and declining standards of reporting have all contributed to the erosion of trust in global and local media.
Coupled with outdated business models, shrinking newsrooms and a disconnect between media outlets and their audiences, now more than ever a shift towards a new kind of journalism is needed. One that focuses on creating long-term financial, social and environmental sustainability, and is built on the back of the basic tenets of good, ethical journalism, truly reflecting the values of the communities it serves. Journalism is not dying as many purport; it is evolving. This radical shift will require collaboration between responsible practitioners and educators in the industry, and it is our duty to shepherd this evolution in media spaces around the world.
This was the resounding consensus from Africa’s first Sustainable Journalism in Practice conference, co-hosted by the Wits Centre for Journalism, Fojo Media Institute and School of Media Innovation at Aga Khan University, held in Nairobi from 23 to 25 March 2023.
“I still find it frustrating when people in the media simply define sustainability as ‘stable profit over time’. I travel a lot, and see this almost everywhere I go,” says president and founder of the Sustainable Journalism Partnership, Lars Tallert. “Maybe this is because most people don’t view their news product, their content, as something that influences sustainability in society, but it definitely does, for good or for bad.
“It’s time to form a new kind of journalism that incorporates a new kind of thinking. Business as usual is not an option. The age of gatekeeping has been over for about 15 years and we are in an era where people are empowered to build their own media startups, doing everything from research and collaboration, to distribution and advertising, right from their phones. So many news companies are trying to force-feed old media concepts into new digital formats, and it doesn’t work. This has led to a decline in relevance, trust, and most of all, revenue,” Tallert says.
The Sustainable Journalism Partnership has argued that working journalists, editors and media owners need to strive for sustainability within six key areas:
- Production and distribution
- Gender and inclusive organisations
- Education, and
“We need to rethink our business models, our customer relations, our content, and even journalism’s role in society,” says Tallert. “I believe that as journalists, we can play a decisive role in making things right. There is a palpable desire from researchers, academics, media practitioners and journalists around the world to incorporate this sustainable journalism framework. We started the Sustainable Journalism Partnership just nine months ago. We already have over 300 members from 63 countries around the world, and we’ve only just started marketing the concept.
“So what is sustainable journalism in practice?” asks Tallert. “Well, to make it really simple, just ask yourself two questions: Does what I plan to produce contribute to the sustainability of my organisation, and does it contribute to the sustainability of my society?”
Sustainability, content and audience engagement
One of the main themes throughout the conference was the need for media brands to rethink their content and how they define and engage with their audiences. A panel discussion during the first day looked at sustainable journalism within the Kenyan context, where the media faces turbulent times in understanding how to stay afloat – certainly a relatable position for media businesses around the world.
Deputy digital editor of the Standard Group Women Network, Queenter Mbori, together with Clare Mogere and Hesbon Owilla of the GSMC Media Innovation Centre, discussed a growing need for media innovation and content that deviates away from the norm and is more attuned to niche audience needs within the country. The challenge is focusing on stories which create social impact, and in turn impact communities.
“[Financially] I think the rain started beating down on us way before Covid because the majority were not able to anticipate the future of media,” says Mbori. “With the digital migration, many of our businesses were affected because today, anyone with a smartphone is a competitor.”
One of the key takeaways from the session was that too often local media focuses on politics in a manner that does not appeal to the younger generation. Content creators and innovators are providing the content that younger, digital natives want to consume, meaning that it’s time to think beyond the traditional way of doing things, using digital spaces differently and paying more attention to what audiences want. All of this needs to be done while exploring alternative sources of funding such as reader revenue, philanthropy, grants, and partnerships to break away from the overreliance on advertising revenues.
One such example from Zimbabwe was highlighted by Munyaradzi Dodo, from Magamba Network. Dodo says the key to making news more accessible and relevant to their younger audiences lies in representation in content. A programme from the Magamba Network called Voice2Rep Zimbabwe is experimenting with a new form of news content production called the Rap Report. Collaborating with musicians, comedians and journalists, the group creates engaging and creative videos that serve up important issues of the day, like the effects of climate change. Through micro-grants, the Magamba Network is also able to fund small projects for reporters and filmmakers to report on important stories that fill a niche.
Improving climate reporting
Another strong thread which emerged from the three-day conference was that sustainable journalism is intrinsically linked to effective climate journalism, and there is an urgent need to improve reporting on climate change, especially at a local level.
“Climate change receives inadequate media coverage and is typically only reported following conferences, events, or disasters,” says WCJ lecturer and researcher Enoch Sithole, presenting findings from his latest research into climate change reporting.
Important stories on climate change are often put behind paywalls, or focus on high-level issues that do not engage with the people affected at a community level in poor, rural areas. These stories have a one-day shelf life and have no impact on the ground. So how do we lobby for better coverage?
Sithole’s study points out a number of ways to achieve this, such as making climate change relevant to other issues which affect communities, working with other editors to influence more effective coverage, using online platforms to serve up innovative reports and reliably follow up on stories, as well as ensuring open dialogue and positive collaboration between researchers and media practitioners.
Group presentation takeaways – how can we make journalism sustainable?
During the conference, attendees were split into working groups over two days to discuss ideas on how to put sustainability into practice within the six key concepts outlined above – content, business, production and distribution, gender and inclusive organisations, education, and research.
Some points which emerged include:
- Quality content requires a community’s understanding and engagement, as it makes people function civically.
- Collaboration with other media houses can help serve a collective audience and increase engagement.
- Collaboration with experts in different industries and companies is needed, especially for media startups.
- Commercialise media infrastructure, such as merchandising, and have regular events. (Food for Mzansi in South Africa does this very well).
- Higher education institutions should continuously engage with industry, such as having practicing or veteran journalists as guest speakers (like we do at the WCJ). Curricula must continuously be reviewed with the changing times.
- Training needs to be proactive, research led, and practical, which can be either content or platform specific.
- Journalists need to learn from influencers on how to reach, attract and retain their audiences online.
- There’s a need to incorporate KPIs in newsrooms more consistently.
- Work with and train citizen journalists to contribute to sustainable journalism. They often have a strong link to their communities.
- Sustainable journalism can be attained by innovating and generating our own funding, especially in the digital space, with products like podcasting.
- In communities where illiteracy and poverty are high, content needs to be explained to the level of understanding for that particular community.
- Collaboration / partnerships and revenue splits with telecommunication companies, since the youth often buys data bundles to view media content. Can an agreement be struck in this space?
- Good journalism sells itself, but organisations can start with free trials before offering subscriptions for premium content.
- Importantly, mental health and well-being – a good and healthy workforce strongly aids in the output of sustainable journalism.
This is just the start, and there is a challenging but exciting road ahead in adopting the action points from the conference, and in continuing to promote the ideals which the Sustainable Journalism Partnership hopes to entrench within media institutions around the world. We saw that diversifying revenue streams, building loyal audiences, collaboration, and innovation are key to ensuring the long-term sustainability of journalism.
“This conference is a gesture of an international commitment to make journalism sustainable financially, socially and culturally, and to ensure that journalism provides evidence and fact-based content to set the agenda on sustainability in all facets of life,” says WCJ director, Dinesh Balliah. “We are deeply committed to sustainability and to journalism that is shaped by Africa and its everyday realities.”
Other news from the conference