African newsrooms need to win the war on truth

What is the state of media in Africa, and where is it going? I recently found myself in Benin, tackling these very large questions for a gathering of media professionals from across West Africa. The conveners, Osiwa, had asked me to try and make some predictions about where media in Africa is headed.

The first challenge for a talk of this sort, of course, is that as much as Africa is not a country, the media is not a thing. But sometimes you have to trust your audience to mine the dross of your generalised data and turn it into something meaningful to their particular environments. The second challenge is that the global digital media economy means that there is no media situation that is altogether peculiar to Africa anymore: there are just points on a timeline of media evolution. You can either look at this as an opportunity (“Africa leapfrogging desktop”), or as a liability (“Africa lagging digitally”). But what you can’t do is ignore the fact that our media is inextricably linked into the global media world. The major example of this, of course, is that our industry is as damaged and compromised by the big American internet platforms as the rest of the world’s. But more on that later.

In addition to Code for Africa’s experience working with media houses around the continent, I’ve turned to two excellent research reports for the data informing this essay. The first is the Reuters Institute for Journalism’s Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions for 2018, and the second, the International Center for Journalists’ exhaustive 2017 survey on The State of Technology in Global Newsrooms. The former allows us to read African media against the state of the industry globally, and the latter to drill down to the specifically Sub-Saharan context.

When thinking about the state of media in Africa, there are two broad types of issues with which we might concern ourselves. The first is, perhaps, more immediately interesting to the journalists producing content: the enticing, new(ish) ways we can tell stories and reach readers. When I look at the themes informing the programme at this year’s edition of Code for Africa’s annual Media Indaba conference (27–29 September 2018), there’s a wealth of exciting hybrids of technology and journalism. The most pervasive is data-driven journalism in its many forms, which has become the new face of evidence-based and investigative journalism. But the list is long: robot, sensor, drone and forensic journalism, artificial intelligence, and the rich area of immersive journalism, such as virtual and augmented reality.

It’s tempting for cynicism to be our immediate response to the juxtaposition of these tech-heavy forms of journalism with the straitened resources of newsrooms. I remember similar reactions from newsrooms 10 or 20 years ago when I’d try to get them excited about the possibilities of social media, citizen journalism, multimedia, mobile apps and other now-commonplaces of the media landscape. And it’s true that, if you’re struggling to get readers to pay for news, it’s a difficult ask to invest in journalism innovations that in some cases haven’t yet brought our audiences along with them. But at the very least, data-driven journalism is going to be crucial to our survival as newsrooms.

The reasons for that are related to the second, and more important issue we need to talk about when looking at the state of media in Africa: the war on truth. We’ve all been indoctrinated into the jargon of this war, so much so that many of us subsume all the complexities and incongruities of the various misinformation, disinformation and downright malicious propaganda campaigns under the useless rubric ‘fake news’. But like all wars, the actual skirmishes and battles are just the front line. Wars are also won and lost in the supply lines and logistics, and it’s here that journalism is most disadvantaged: where revenue, resources and (possibly most damaging of all) relationships are whittled away by the changing face of our industry, and by those Four Platforms of the Apocalypse, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon. (Although these platforms, and their relative importance as threats, can change depending on your location and market.)

One of the notable findings of the two research reports mentioned earlier was that almost half of publishers say they’re more worried about the power and influence of platforms than they were in the year previously, and platforms are top of the list of things they see as threats to their success in 2018. Second on the list is the inability to innovate and, of course, these two threats are intertwined. To innovate costs a lot of money, and in a world where Facebook and Google attracted 84% of global spending in 2017, there’s not a lot of excess budget that media houses can invest in new ventures designed to change that number in their favour.

But it’s not just media’s revenue that the platforms are eating. They’re also nibbling away at a much more rare currency, the authority of responsible journalism. They do this by facilitating misinformation and the spread of bad journalism, and by rendering news brands anonymous. A disturbing statistic, although not a particularly surprising one, is that fewer than half of readers (47%) typically recognised the news brand that had created the content when they access news in Facebook, Twitter, or Google. Think about that for a moment. Half the people reading a news story don’t actually know the news organisation that produced it, and presumably don’t care. It’s going to be tricky forging relationships of trust and brand loyalty with people who don’t know you exist. This problem is possibly even more dramatic than we think. People often share actual media coverage of an issue on social media, with the accompanying accusation “Why isn’t the media covering this!!?” Forget your particular brand: we’d be forgiven for concluding that there are people out there who don’t even know the media exists.

And build loyalty and trust we must. Putting it crudely, we need people to give us money, because without money, governments and corporations can either buy us or break us. We need people to pay so that the press can be free. 44% of publishers see subscriptions as an important source of digital revenue in 2018 — more than branded and sponsored content (39%), and digital display advertising (38%). And the problem of finding new revenue is even more pressing in developing countries. About 70% of newsrooms in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East identify developing new revenue streams as a major challenge, compared with 44% of North American ones.

How can news organisations reverse the erosion of trust? (And I’m using ‘trust’ as shorthand for building relationships and loyalty, both brand and editorial.) A multivalent answer, but we can sum it up: own your data. 62% of publishers globally said that the most important initiative for their newsrooms is “improving data capacity”. This doesn’t just mean your ability to understand big data, but to grow and harvest your own. Old school media types claim that newspapers precipitated their own doom by giving away their content for free online. That’s not true, of course. Journalism was always basically given away for free, with cover prices barely covering the cost of printing. The seismic moment of idiocy for newspapers came when they gave away their readers for free, and that’s more a function of hubris than happenstance.

Even today, amazingly, only 1% of newsrooms globally have analytics editors present, and less than half of newsrooms (45%) consult analytics daily. Space precludes a discussion of how analytics should be constituted and used, but suffice to say that driving page impressions shouldn’t be primary. (Currently, research shows that page views is the metric that gets the most attention — 73% — from newsrooms.) Creating and nurturing a deeper relationship with your audience is the next battleground for media, and that’s where many media houses will win or lose.

The key will be having the right data infrastructure, and staffing up for the right skills. Data-driven journalism can be a kind of trojan horse for this, because so much of it is about getting readers to become part of the story, both as contributors to the story evolution, and as producers of data. But also, analysis by people like Trusting News has highlighted the fact that mistrust of the media can stem from not understanding how the media works. Evidence-based journalism needs to announce itself. Readers don’t automatically see how rigorous the checks and balances are that inform good journalism. Showing the data you use to reach conclusions, and allowing readers to follow the data to their own conclusions, is one way of building this trust.

The war on truth is one that African news organisations can, and must, win. The opportunities afforded by digital journalism can be more powerful than the threats, but seizing them requires a commitment to taking back control of our relationships with our readers. Embracing a data first strategy is a vital part of that.

(This is a version of a talk given to the Osiwa “Free, Quality and Independent Media Partners’ Forum”, in Cotonou, Benin, March 8–9 2018.)