Franz Krüger, Adjunct Professor of the Wits Centre for Journalism and founder of the Wits Radio Academy, has released a new report titled Greening Africa’s news deserts, which considers important policy options to support local media in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Local media play a critical role in information ecosystems, and their weakness in many African countries mirrors larger social and economic inequalities,” said Krüger. “The search for sustainability needs to start with an understanding of some key characteristics of local media in Africa.”

To further unpack the importance of the report and possible solutions, the Wits Centre for Journalism held a webinar on 26 October with Anya Schiffrin, director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialisation in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University; Khadija Patel, head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media; and Dr Theodora Adjin-Tettey of the University of Ghana. The discussion was facilitated by Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism at the Centre and Executive Director of the Campaign for Free Expression.

‘News deserts’ in Africa present a problem not only for people left out of the information loop, but for whole societies, said Krüger, adding that it’s lazy to think that one can simply apply solutions from the Global North to this issue, as circumstances and causes are different.

Patel asserted that the problem facing the media is not unique to Africa, but a global issue. “But what makes it worse in places like Africa? Why is it so bad here?” she asked.

“Yes, there’s a lack of government subsidies, but I think there’s also a lack of independence for media across various contexts in this region. There’s also a more realistic factor in that Africa continues to struggle with development. One of the key things that has helped in other contexts is reader-generated revenue schemes, but they have the limitation here where audiences don’t have much disposable income.”

Adjin-Tettey raised the example of the Ghanaian Broadcasting Corporation (GBC), which mainly gets its funding from government. She explained that these subventions hardly ever arrive on time, or sometimes don’t arrive at all, so what GBC has done is adopt a more commercial approach.  

“GBC found that state institutions wanted a lot of consistent coverage for their events, and that drained their resources, especially when they needed to cover these events live. Now, whenever GBC get these coverage requests, they send an invoice to those institutions, allowing them to generate the revenue they need to cover other important news stories within society,” said Adjin-Tettey.

Schiffrin said that globally, there’s a general worry about policy – how can it be designed, and a fear that it might worsen inequality. But examples from around the world demonstrate that successful, positive policy changes can be affected.  

“When I was in Australia last summer, I was so impressed because they were so utterly pragmatic. They joined hands to get it done,” said Schiffrin, referring to how the country’s political parties came together in passing the News Media Bargaining Code in 2021, which requires Facebook and Google to pay a negotiated fee to link to or use news content, as well as asking tech companies to give advance notice to news organisations about any upcoming algorithm changes. This was a big step forward, as it helps ensure publishers and journalists get paid a fairer share for their work.

Emma McDonald, Senior Policy Adviser to the Minderoo Foundation’s Frontier Technology initiative, worked with a lot of the smaller roleplayers in that policy, getting them to bargain collectively in raising money.

“Slowly, she brought more and more outlets into the bargaining code, and eventually somewhere around AUS$200-million was injected into journalism over the last year or so,” said Schiffrin.

Ultimately, Krüger said there is no magic bullet solution, but several players can help.

“Governments need to ensure an enabling environment, offer funding, and should deploy ad money fairly, while media themselves should experiment with business models while focusing on quality of output and audience needs,” he concluded.

Download the full report here, and watch the webinar below.