Zimbabwe’s media quagmire
Are we stuck on our existential crisis?
The top problem facing Zimbabwean journalism has been the same for several decades: anti-media laws. I hold this view, but this is not the only perspective I embrace about the crisis of our local journalism. In fact, I would be reprimanded by colleagues who have over the years suffered under the country’s draconian media laws if I dared to challenge legislation as local journalism’s №1 foe.
Anti-media laws have been a prominent subject of conversation in the local media sphere since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980. Even most of us who cut our teeth in journalism after the turn of the millennium have refused to look beyond this existential crisis. Because of this, not so much space and time is given to authentic conversations about journalism’s inward challenges, including many barriers that impede innovation.
This fall I began a rare opportunity to spend an academic year at Stanford University as a John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellow. I am working to address some of the challenges stifling the growth of quality journalism in Zimbabwe. It’s an opportunity which could not have come at a better time.
It comes at a time when Zimbabwe’s “new” regime, led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, has promised reforms in a polarized media landscape inherited from the country’s late longtime ruler Robert Mugabe — who used draconian laws to stifle the growth of independent media, while curtailing free speech within both the media and civil society.
During my interview in April 2019, directors of the JSK Journalism Fellowships asked me whether the media was now free in Zimbabwe. My response was a quick confirmation that the situation has changed and that the media space is opening up. This was not because I fully believed in what authorities were promising. I said yes because I believe that, despite the difficult conditions that our local media sphere continues to face under a new (but old) government, our country needs quality journalism, an area in which we must invest more time and space, just as we do with media legislation.
And for me, quality journalism requires that we look beyond our existential crisis and start exploring things that could help reinvent and build our local journalism from the ground up. During JSK orientation this September, Tran Ha, a lecturer at the d.school, Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, and a JSK alumnus, introduced me to what they call “laddering,” a tool which helped me better diagnose and map a solution for what I believe is my country’s major journalism challenge.
After landing several times on what I defined as “political problems,” I discovered that I am stuck on this existential issue because it’s the same problem that has plagued my country and my mind for several years. This year I have decided that I will not look at our crisis as existential.
I will spend my year exploring experiments in local journalism sustainability and collaboration, to support newsrooms in Zimbabwe with new ways to tell stories and engage communities. Of course, I do not think that those who are preoccupied with the existential problems of our media must stop. I just believe that we need a crop of journalism thought leaders who are ready to look at the bigger picture and dive deep into innovation. I believe this has been ignored in our local media for years.
While I am certainly not Zimbabwe’s journalism messiah, I hope to use this opportunity to generate fresh interest and engagement in journalism innovation in my country. So, as I explore my project, I will be asking for help from all of those who genuinely care about reinventing our local journalism. I came to Stanford with many more questions than answers in my mind, and I hope to use this opportunity to find the answers. I will need help from every area. I will reach out to journalists, academics, activists, funders, corporate leaders and leaders of civil society, among others.
On September 14, 2019, I conducted a small poll on Twitter — the response was low, but I am optimistic about receiving more responses. (Of course, I am grateful to a few comrades who shared their views via my inbox). If you missed the tweet, you can find it here.
In the poll, I asked followers what they think might save or rejuvenate local journalism, with the following options, not in order of importance:
- New ways of storytelling
- Revenue models
- Audience engagement
Interestingly, the areas in which I plan to spend my year at Stanford, polled highest in votes. New ways of storytelling was first, followed by collaboration. Of course, this does not mean I will ignore revenue models and audience engagement during my research year, as I believe that the solutions to journalism’s most pressing challenges will not be addressed through one single way. However, in this installment I will not delve too much on the core of my project. So, keep checking this space for more.
While I prepare to dive deep into my project there are a few things here that have already stimulated me with some fresh thinking. One of the most important is that, while I have spent a few years trying to address what I believe are challenges bedeviling journalism in my country, I never had the space, time and resources to work on it, until I got this amazing gift of a JSK Fellowship. The second is that for the first time I will spend a year focusing on myself as a project, too. To achieve this goal, I have already adopted life-changing habits that will help me effectively pursue my journalism project.
I came here as a non-essentialist who had spent many years making a millimeter of progress in a million directions. But a few weeks of my exploration here have taught me to be an essentialist. One of the reasons I learnt this speedily is that Stanford is a boiling pot of everything good — from abundant educational resources and exciting activities at the campus to dozens of opportunities throughout Silicon Valley. So to avoid suffering from decision fatigue and drowning in everything, I have adopted a succinct principle, captured in just three German words: Weniger aber besser. The English translation is: Less but better.
So I am now emboldened to apply this selective criteria to everything, not only my project. While I am here, I’m eager to buy back my personal space that has been devoured by years of no rest. And in this space, I hope to find my creative confidence and freedom. I am much more willing to concentrate my efforts on one project at a time, anticipate roadblocks, and learn to remove obstacles that could stop me from achieving my goals.
If you want to join me make more noise about local journalism — or want to tell me to shut up — shout at me via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to @village_scribe.