Supporting People Powered Media Innovation in West Africa

Independent media is influencing politics and government in previously unprecedented ways in West Africa. The increasing diversification of media ecosystems after decades of state control, along with new digital tools that allow for greater citizen engagement, have led to a dramatic reshaping of the dynamics between citizens, media, and government. In tandem, new opportunities for funders are opening up, providing the potential for significant positive social and economic impact.

Recognizing these trends and wanting to better understand how we and other funders and practitioners working in the space could help drive greater impact, Omidyar Network partnered with Reboot, a social impact firm dedicated to inclusive development and accountable governance, to undertake a research project identifying the constraints and opportunities that drive media innovation in West Africa today. The project paid particular attention to identifying concrete examples of organizations in Nigeria and Ghana — countries chosen for their vibrant media ecosystems — that represent the wider trend of innovation within the local media landscape and could provide important insights, as well as highlighting specific opportunities and actions for funders to explore.

Over four months from July to October 2015 the Reboot team conducted in-depth interviews in Nigeria and Ghana with 58 respondents, including those representing media, government, civil society organizations and citizens across focus countries. The detailed findings of the research have published today in a report titled People Powered Media Innovation in West Africa.

Based on the review of the current media landscape, Reboot identified the emergence of digital tools as a key factor contributing towards greater openness and citizen participation. The role of social media is particularly key; from the rise of “influencers” who shape opinions, to the role of the “crowd” in monitoring elections and pushing for more open budgets, to breaking news before mainstream media houses. The media is also increasingly influencing government, for instance in-depth reporting on corruption is driving investigations and leading to the firing of individuals found guilty of offences.

The historic 2015 Nigerian general election demonstrates the emerging virtuous cycle that independent media organizations are increasingly central to. Citizens photographed polling results, compared them to the government results, and discussed them on social media. This content spread across new and traditional media, giving their contributions audience and influence, which in turn incentivized greater citizen participation. Other notable disruptions include: Occupy Nigeria, a campaign against fuel price increases, spurred largely by social media savvy activists, as well as Bring Back Our Girls (#BBOG), a stand against terrorism and kidnapping in Nigeria.

However, as the report details, there are several challenges that continue to persist within the West African media landscape. These include low trust in media from most readers due to presumed political partisanship. In addition, editorial continues to be heavily influenced by advertising revenues from either government or private sector. Finally, entertainment sells, so sometimes there is a drive towards that as a least common denominator at the expense of less sensational content.

In this context the report identifies a number of actions that funders can take to help support the the development, growth and impact of media organizations in these markets. First, through foundational market research, they can help fledgling media entities develop empirical business and editorial strategies and claim a niche. This is particularly important since media’s impact on governance and financial stability both hinge on audience engagement.

Nigeria’s Sabi News is a case in point. The organization has realized the value of a niche orientation in a crowded news landscape by featuring a roster of social and political commentators whose analysis of current events run from bitingly critical to refreshingly entertaining. In addition, by providing direct support in analytics and engagement metrics, funders can help media organizations better target editorial strategies for action. Finally, recognizing media’s resource constraints, funders can encourage collaborations with civil society to support in-depth reporting on timely political openings.

In addition to the actions outlined above, the Reboot team also noted that there was a clear role for funders to experiment with new financial pathways to encourage media organizations to develop more sustainable business models. More creative financing, such as supporting media loan funds, can “incubate” organizations through long-term, supportive relationships. There is a need for core operating funds that enable media organizations to set their own agendas and editorial strategy. There is also a need to responsive funding mechanisms that provide greater agency, tailored to different stages of the organizational lifecycle (from start-up to established). Finally, the report highlights the role of individual journalists in the field and the importance of providing funding, journalism training, and business guidance to promising individuals to drive impact.

We believe that now is the time for funders and media organizations to channel their energy toward the emerging opportunities for media in West Africa. Though, as the report illustrates the path is not straightforward, there has never been a better time for investors to recognize opportunity to drive impact, develop a whole sector and aid creation of more sustainable financial models and a playbook that can be used to advance independent media and good governance around the world.