COVID-19 has affected many sectors and industries across the world and in different ways. From aviation to tourism and business, to education and health, many countries continue to struggle to get back to normalcy even as the pandemic rages on. While some sectors have been affected directly, for others, it’s subtle yet far reaching. I am an upcoming journalist and I’m writing this based on my observations.
The pandemic aside, the media industry has been evolving. With technology, many outlets have been striving to adapt and that has seen many people lose jobs, drop in subscriptions and plummeting production of print publications. While these are the realities of the people in the industry, the effects of the pandemic have come to worsen the situation.
There’s no doubt that journalism matters and the reliance on the traditional news outlets for information especially during this period backs this up. According to the digital news report of 2020 by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism And Oxford University, the Coronavirus crisis has substantially increased news consumption for mainstream media in all of the countries under study (40 countries from 6 continents). Television news and online sources registered significant upticks, and more people identified television as their main source of news, providing temporary respite from a picture of steady decline. Consumption of printed newspapers, has fallen as lock downs undermine physical distribution, almost certainly accelerating the shift to an all-digital future. I am keen to see how newspapers specifically are faring on with most countries opening up steadily. At the same time, the use of online and social media substantially increased in most countries. As of April 2020, trust in the media’s coverage of COVID-19 was relatively high in all countries. Media trust was more than twice the level for social networks, video platforms, or messaging services when it came to information about COVID-19. However, even with the positive cases registered, global concerns about misinformation remain high. Even here in Kenya, the issue of fake news remain of great concern.
The study also shows that there’s been a significant increase in payment for online news in a number of countries including the United States 20% (+4) and Norway 42% (+8). While this may not be a model that has been adopted in large scale in Kenya and probably Africa, it is something to look out for in the near future.
Newsrooms are shrinking by the day. Convergence has been the driving force behind this and while it was happening before the pandemic, this year has seen many journalists lose their jobs. While some of these job losses are as a result of technology like Microsoft did in May by replacing humans with robots, others are as a result of loss of revenue. This report by the CNN indicates the changes that have been witnessed in the US with different newsrooms cutting off staff, instituting pay cuts and other outlets allowing their staff to work from home.
In Kenya, the situation is not any different. We have witnessed journalists being laid off from most of the leading media outlets. Usually it starts with redundancy notices before 100 members of staff are laid off like it happened at Mediamax followed by the Nation Media Group and the Royal Media Services. Other outlets such as Switch TV and TV47 also let go of their staff.
Challenges of media freedom
At a time when journalists are needed most, we have also witnessed cases of harassment, arrests and intimidation of the members of the fourth estate. There have been situations where politicians take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to settle scores with journalists. The findings of the 2020 World Press Freedom Index has a lot to show concerning this. We should all be worried when the voice of the 4th estate is being stifled by the state and perhaps it is time we in Africa stood together to condemn what’s happening in Zimbabwe, if we’re not doing so already. The other threat to the freedom and independence of journalists is the issue of media ownership. Where politicians are the major shareholders in the media industry then journalists cannot practice as they should because the gatekeepers will ensure that no story that’s against the politicians will pass.
With all these challenges however, it is not all doom and gloom. There are many opportunities for us to thrive. Dear journalists, it is not time to lose faith in a career that can be so fulfilling. Dear journalists, it is time to take up the opportunities that technology has presented us. It is time to recreate, and re-invent, if you’re in the newsroom. For the rest of us who are outside the newsroom, there are many before us who have shown us that it’s possible to thrive as a journalist outside the newsroom. Dear journalist, get those extra skills, try out new things and grow.
The smartphone is here with us to help us tell those stories. With working from home during this period, it is now clear that the smartphone can help us get work done easier and faster. We’ve seen models that are working here in Kenya. There are senior journalists known for special reports who quit the newsrooms and are running their independent media outlets successfully. John Allan Namu, Alex Chamwada, Asha Mwilu are just but a few we can refer to. Expect to see more journalists going the independent way. I personally think independent journalism is the future and therefore nothing should stop you from exploring and trying these new models that trends in the media landscape and the technology have made available to us. Remember that technology changes with each rising sun but storytelling doesn’t. There are many more technological advancements coming our way and they sure are going to change the technical aspect of storytelling but we have to be ready to learn, unlearn and relearn in order to thrive.
This segment I am calling “Dear Journalists” as it is meant specifically for all journalists both young and veteran. It should initiate dialogue on where we’ve come from, where we are and what is to come in as far as our industry is concerned. I’ll bring on board veteran journalists to talk to us and also get to hear from young and upcoming journalists on what their expectations are as well as challenges they may be facing. It is my hope that this can steer all of us to the next level in our careers. Dear journalists, we do not give up, we do not stop writing, we do not stop creating, we are essential!