The death of creativity in the Kenyan newsroom and the likely casualties

A few weeks ago, a former colleague was a guest at a local university’s media studies department to give a public lecture on a now all-too-familiar topic — the future of news in the age of social media.

She rightly observed that legacy media still enjoys the long-established association with credibility that is non-existent in alternative sources on social media. The tiny crumbs of reactions that I was able to gather online from the conversation that ensued, tell the story of a young generation enchanted by the promise of a meaningful career in the fourth estate. I was also struck by the extent to which journalism training institutions in the country have proliferated in the last decade or so. This is in complete contrast with a similar period of massive layoffs in the industry courtesy of dwindling revenues suffered by the major media companies which these cohorts of unwitting millennials hope to work for.

Alternative news dissemination platforms such as social media have taken the bulk of the blame with common belief among media old guards and their equally nescient protégés being that social media is the threat. Perhaps it is this prospect of an annihilation of legacy media’s traditional revenue stream(s) that inspires similar conversations in newsrooms even as new players jostle for what is left of it. It is, however, becoming very clear that while Facebook and Google have wrestled away a significant chunk of advertising revenue from mainstream publishers across the world, this is not entirely a threat to journalism and at least locally, the threat lies in the newsroom itself.

Before the mass popularity of social media and the arguable gradual reduction of the cost of Internet access in the form of ‘bundles’, Kenyan mainstream media were in a sense, doing okay. They had the audience under their grip, neatly programmed to fit their daily schedules with the news bulletins. If you didn’t hear it from them, it never happened!

Legacy media’s reaction to the behemoth that is the Internet has been characterised by panic which has birthed a new era of journalism that lays bare newsroom transgressions previously masked by the cosiness of an oligopolistic market.

But at the heart of this takeover, the biggest culprit is the journalist; the literal workhand tasked with meeting the business goals of the media company — a task that is often and always at odds with the profession’s aspirations.

Back to the youthful audience at the university and let me take you through a path these prospective journalism grads are likely to follow, which most probably went unmentioned. Landing a job at any of the mainstream media companies will count as a fete and to the enthusiastic newcomer, a chance to make a difference telling impactful stories, holding authorities accountable and a realistic shot at award-winning journalism. After about a couple of months’ time of sincere gratitude for trouncing the unemployment dragon, the infatuation wears off and the bleak reality of the insipid content factory that you now slave for starts kicking in.

Churnalism

You will surely learn the ropes fast enough to fit into the new ecosystem which banks on the primacy of traditionally trusted sources and effectively recalibrate yourself to thrive while tossing out the window all the journalism values that your non-practicing lecturers methodically imparted.

One of the newer roles that you might find yourself in would be at an online content division enthusiastically named ‘Digital’ and since you are part of the Web 2.0 generation, your ‘experienced’ hirers will be more than glad to inject ‘fresh blood’ into their evolving experiment. Your LinkedIn profile will change from ‘intern’ to ‘digital reporter’ or whatever unstandardised title your employer deems fit and whence your journal to intellectual damnation begins. Your work will be essentially to populate the website with highly engaging stories as fast as possible and generate the highest number of hits. You will soon realise (actually they will spell it out in the interview) your evaluation will be based on how well you beat the competition in breaking stories, social media shares on your pieces, comments on the website and every while, the nerdy webmaster will be bombarding you with SEO tips and nicely-worded warnings about a consistently high bounce rate.

Eventually, your portfolio comprises how-to-stories, explainers, ‘what you need to know…’ stories disguised as follow-up pieces, an advertorial here and there and outright surrender to the clickbait bandwagon. The dream of ever penning meaningful stories or analytical and thought-provoking pieces is a distant dream even as your contact lists expands. If you are not expectantly watching the live stats after sending that push notification, you are on the phone hounding some MP for a ‘reaction’ when it occurs to you a semblance of balance is needed, or even more often, it is a dry day and reaction stories seem to resonate well with your audience. You will also find yourself often doing some sort of media monitoring which essentially involves pinned tabs of your competitors on your browser and refreshing them every while to stay ahead.

Your sub-editor, whom you hope to replace one day is probably a fatigued 30-something year-old, worn out by half a decade or so of daily rummaging through hundreds of press releases to be systematically repurposed for news (to your displeasure), combing through wire services for regional/international fillers, chasing cash-starved contributors to populate the company’s blog — a pet project of theirs that never seems to take off and dealing with countless reminders of the company’s hackneyed ‘digital first’ strategy which birthed the burden of always being on call on nights and weekends. Oh, and then there is the occasional horror of having to issue retractions — quite expected in journalism — but especially those stories that rub advertisers the wrong way which your goggle-eyed self will come to realise is a cardinal sin. Nope, advertisers cannot be held to account!

But then you could start off in broadcast; which is different, right? Wrong. You might not carry the nasty label of ‘desktop journalist’ your unfortunate colleagues bear and it is also ‘digital first’, so you can flesh out your stories more… Well, over the last year or so local broadcasters have turned to a pseudo-24-hour news programming model and a series of biannual rebranding absurdities in the hope of squeezing out an extra advertising shilling. This coupled up with disparate staffing has turned the broadcast journalist into a he-said-she-said puppet, in the name of in-depth coverage that leaves a lot to be desired. Take, for example, the overnight transformation of radio correspondents into live TV reporters during the last election and the ridiculous mishaps we were served up almost on a daily basis. That aside, you will soon realise that there are really only two beats to choose from; politics or breaking news, the former being the mainstay of local broadcasting.

If you are not on the campaign trail, which really is a perennial activity in Kenya, you will be a Parliamentary reporter and depending on what side of the handshake your company owners lean to, you will be on the Nasa or the Jubilee beat. Everything else; health, education, science, crime, technology etc. fall under breaking news if it happens not to involve a politician which you will then be compelled to give episodic treatment as if there is no background, culprits, victims or any form of context — this will be reserved, I presume, for the magazine shows that seldom do justice to the issues at hand while recycling layabout commentators all too eager to get some airtime. The business beat on broadcast will often involve translation of an advertiser’s press release into a TV story by marrying stock footage with a great voiceover followed by a hefty invoice. If you eventually satisfy your bosses after obsequiously working your ass off and you get your own show, outside of prime time, you might end up feeling a little like you are just ‘filling up airtime’ like one show host I spoke to a couple of months back told me of what was supposed to be their big break.

Cheap Labour and the bottom line myth

The staffing challenges earlier alluded to are compounded by a haphazard compensation system that will often punish than reward hard work, loyalty and experience. For many journalists, a 50-hour work week is a norm, and although this arguably comes with the territory, for such an incredible amount of time dedicated to a for-profit organisation you will have to contend with the insult of your remuneration being determined arbitrarily by senior editors and managers. Don’t take my word for it, because according to a study by the Media Council of Kenya (the supposed industry regulator), two-thirds of journalists in the country report no knowledge of an established pay scale by their media companies.

The study also reveals that a significant number of journalists do not have contracts despite having worked for the same organisation for years, with two-thirds of practicing journalists receiving no insurance cover, compensation of unemployment, or any pension. It goes on to detail the non-existence of specialisations, tenuous relationships with employers, an urgent need for on-the-job safety training, and the fact that income from journalistic labour falls far below many other professions including education, accountancy and the civil service.

I recall a conversation I had with one radio journalist a few years ago after he tried to get a raise three years on the job since he thought that was an appropriate enough period to get some worth for his work. But the brief conversation reportedly went something like this…

Journalist: I need a raise, sir… (Or whatever polite way anyone would start this conversation)

Radio broadcasting head: Would you happen to have your badge with you?

Journalist: (Baffled) Yes!

Radio broadcasting head: Good! Use that to get your raise.

Journalist: (Nods knowingly, quietly walks out.)

This is, unfortunately, the path taken by many to supplement their meagre incomes with politicians providing an obvious partnership. I’d hesitate to claim that brown-envelope journalism is caused by low media wages, obviously because of the insatiable greed of the human condition, but there is certainly a huge correlation.

This quote from Otsieno Nyamwaya’s article, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, then writing for Expression Today in 2010, aptly portrays this ecology.

“They [politicians] claim that they are forced to apportion a percentage of their monthly expenditure to pay journalists and generally “manage” the media.”

At the very bottom of the hierarchy, are the correspondents who, according to MCK form about 80% of journalists in Kenya. Dear journalism grad, you don’t want to be one of these unfortunate worker bees of the media industry. You are better off laying down your pen and happily diving into the bodaboda business where you are guaranteed to make twice as much. This is despite correspondents contributing the fodder for a majority of national stories while ill-equipped and barely facilitated.

Here is what some journalists told MCK in their study on what they go through courtesy of a ridiculous compensation arrangement.

“I have to look for other side jobs to meet my needs and supplement my income hence my work output suffers.”

“I need time for part-time jobs, so I have low levels of concentration,”

“Sometimes I am unable to do a thorough research on a story due to inadequate logistics e.g. transport,”

If you speak to managers and the human resource people, the justification for years of no salary reviews or non-existent career progression is neatly defined– Bottomline. ‘We are not making money’, ‘it hasn’t been budgeted for’ and my personal favourite ‘we can’t discuss your salary right now because a company-wide review is coming up very soon!’

For a young population like Kenya’s, employers generally have a brim-fill pool of eager talent to choose from for any entry- to a mid-level position you can think of. And this is especially true in the media industry. Remember when Standard Media Group was recently raided by rival stations? You can guess how long it took them to find equally brilliant replacements. There is absolutely no shortage of talent in journalism — and make no mistake, they will be happy to get a fraction of the pay that you now despise just to get their head in. Perhaps this explains curious findings like this one published by the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly that reports a baffling high job satisfaction level among journalists despite generally low income.

Unless you are considered a highly valued asset by your editors or have managed to get into the good books of the managers/owners or worse bedded somebody important, you will be easily let go the moment you disagree. This system has presided over the haemorrhaging of talent from local mainstream publishers to other professions in marketing, public relations, communications, county governments and recently, international broadcasters.

One such talent described joining an international broadcaster after years of constantly having to shelve or massively edit strenuously produced news features as; ‘I am suddenly realising that I was deprived of my human rights for so long’.

Of course, local broadcasters hardly have the financial muscle of government-owned outlets like the BBC, CGTN or Al Jazeera and neither do they have the backing of a billionaire like Jeff Bezos who was able to swallow losses at the now profitable Washington Post. It, however, can neither be the excuse for condemning journalists to a life of servitude nor the defense for stifling innovation and experimentation. Clinging on to the failed advertising model will only make things worse and only delay an inevitable rethinking of funding journalism locally — probably new entrants in the industry who don’t have the market advantage of existing dinosaurs and probably lead them to extinction.

Creativity

There have been attempts to diversify product portfolios with for example Royal Media Services launching a surprisingly successful video streaming service and increased budgetary allocations for online media as is seemingly happening at the Standard Group, but as long as these efforts do not address pertinent issues in journalistic labour, the much-needed innovation will not take off. This is coupled up with bureaucratic decision making especially regarding budgeting for projects already agreed on as necessary and a rigid leadership in the newsroom whose sheer status has borne short-sightedness.

This is no way a Kenyan-only problem. Trying to divorce the profit motive from news by changing processes has been a very slow journey, worldwide.

“Innovation is a hot topic in Portugal, so no one is against it, but no one really wants to invest in it.” Ines Bravo, UX designer at Portuguese newspaper Expresso is quoted in Indian Journalist Pankti Mehta’s article on reinventing the newsroom after the Global Editor’s Network digital news innovation hackathon in 2017.

She observes that the very biggest hurdle to innovation cited by editorial teams world over is really, a lack of time. The 24-hour news cycle is all-consuming, meaning journalists seldom worry about how creatively they can deliver a story and more about getting copy ready for publication.

“This [innovation] requires time, effort and collaboration between various departments, all of which is more often than not, not feasible at the same time. It involves going beyond the work that’s expected of you too,” she writes.

For a poorly paid, overworked journalist working in an inadequately resourced newsroom, creativity is inevitably thrown out the window. It is, as I have seen through my interactions in the few years I have worked in the Kenyan media scene, replaced by an affinity to the monotonous ‘news processing’ and a resolve to daily hit the bare minimum, drinking up to drown the fatigue in the weekend because Monday is back to the bullshit.

I am tempted to declare journalism a dead-end job (some news editor told me 3 years ago that his promotion from ‘senior reporter’ was career-ending), and pursuing a media studies degree (especially the programs offered by Kenyan universities) wasted time and effort. But the inefficiencies that currently define the industry will not last long and the opportunities for the creative are limitless.

…the era of impoverished, ad-funded, vapid journalism is coming to a close. Tomorrow’s journalism will be high quality, investigative, trustworthy and paid for. – Toby Abel