World leaders and researchers of media management and media business meet in South Africa for a four-day summit starting on Sunday to take a critical look at threats and opportunities for a sustainable African and global media industry and to map out the ingredients for a robustly independent, credible and relevant journalism in a world sapped by ‘news noise’ and information.

Meeting in only the first ever summit in Africa of the World Media Economics and Management Conference (WMEMC), the 250 delegates will review the promises and perils of media convergence on media firms and seek solutions that strengthen an industry that is facing hyper-competition from the ‘platform economy’ of technological giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter.

“It’s a landmark summit which, through the sharing of top-level research and other studies, will seek to make sense of the activities of the platform economy giants and how they interact with the media industry,” according to Francis Mdlongwa, Conference Director and head of Rhodes University’s Sol Plaatje Institute (SPI) for Media Leadership, which is hosting the summit in Cape Town from 6-9 May.

“In the highly complex and dynamic economic, social and financial relationships and alliances that are being forged by media firms to survive a financial crisis brought about partly by media convergence, the key question for media and journalism is whether they now need to collaborate or be co-opted into the emerging media ecosystem that is led by the technological platforms.”

Co-opetition is a concept where business rivals simultaneously compete and collaborate on specific areas of business as part of a strategy to gain a competitive advantage against others.

Indeed the theme of the 13th edition of the WMEMC in Cape Town is “Media Management in the Age of Tech Giants: Collaboration or Co-opetition?” As well as world-leading professors and researchers of media business and media management, the conference will be attended by scholars of business and journalism schools, journalists and media-linked non-governmental organizations.

The delegates are drawn from North America, Latin America, the Arctic, Europe, Asia, the Far East, the Middle East and Africa. Patricia de Lille, Mayor of Cape Town, will officially open the summit on Sunday evening, 6 May, from 6.30pm at the Lagoon Beach Hotel that overlooks the waters of the Atlantic Ocean and is near landmarks such as Robben Island, Table Mountain and the enchanting city of nearly four million.

More than 100 research papers are due to be presented at the conference, along with keynote speakers and panelists from several countries, including the United States of America, Africa, the United Kingdom and South Africa.

“We hope that #WMEMC 2018 will help media managers and journalists of Africa in particular to see how their problems and opportunities are both local and global, as well as exploring how their own media management and journalism schools need to reposition themselves in a rapidly changing and discontinuous media-scape,” the SPI’s Mdlongwa said, previewing the conference.

 The SPI is a brainchild of Professor Guy Berger who, as Head of Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies in the 1990s and 2000s, launched the Institute in 2002 to specifically educate and train high-level media managers for Africa who are able to operate in fast-changing media conditions occasioned by media convergence – the coming together of the industries and technologies of computing, telecoms, broadcasting, media and, now, digital and social media.

The Institute started modestly, offering in-service media management and leadership courses to practising media managers and leaders from the 15-nation Southern African Development Community region. To date, it has trained nearly 6,000 media leaders from across Africa, many of whom today either own their own media firms or are CEOs and editors-in-chiefs.

Over the years since Mdlongwa joined the Institute in 2004, the SPI has intensified its short-term professional business and editorial courses and also strengthened its flagship postgraduate media management programme, an intensive, one-year honours degree-level formal qualification in media management, the only one in Africa and the developing world. This course was launched in 2004.

The SPI has also graduated more than 300 students from across Africa through its postgraduate programme, whose focus is to integrate theory with practice. The course purposefully seeks to graduate students who not only have holistic understandings, knowledge and work competencies through a mid-year industrial internship, but students who have ‘employability skills’ such as analytical skills, decision-making skills, critical-thinking skills, and trouble-shooting in novel work environments.

“The story of our graduates speaks for itself if one just looks at a few of them: one graduate later worked as a senior manager at the Content Hub of Facebook in London for eight years; we have a graduate who is heading up Lesotho’s Department of Broadcasting; we have one graduate who is running a successful multi-platform media group in Ghana; one graduate who heads up the Business Unit of Malawi Television; one graduate who, despite Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown, is running a thriving newspaper in Harare, the capital…” Mdlongwa said.    

He added: “We would not have produced these highly competent and agile media managers and leaders without the strong support of all my colleagues who teach on these programmes, and the invaluable back-up system of the SPI’s administrators and co-ordinators. I am indebted to all of them; as indeed I must thank the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and Primedia, which have offered generous scholarships to educate more than 40 women media leaders over the past decade.

“We are living in an ironic era where the internet and the world wide web were supposed to democratize journalism and the public sphere, but where we now see increasing business partnerships and collaboration among both friends and frenemies (simultaneous friends and foes) as a new way of doing business by pooling your organizations’ strengths to capture a larger market and share profit. Those firms which are financial weaker are being closed out of the new content aggregation strategies.

“The top international technological companies are increasingly adopting vertical and horizontal integration strategies, where they own or merge with input suppliers and also buy out real and potential rivals respectively in the entire production chain to ensure that they control the market and the entire production system, which allows them to reap not just economies of scale but of scope and shut out new players and those who have no such partnerships.

“With most legacy media firms across the world still struggling to embrace digital and social media in terms of ‘monetizing’ their new audiences, the conference couldn’t have come at a more opportune time because both the media and journalism are at cross-road, a turning point in history, to redefine themselves, their roles and utility in a more transparent and information-overloaded world.”