A desperate need for a strong and free press
The UK government has just lifted the much-derided travel restrictions based on the Omicron variant and re-opened the borders to my home country South Africa. But as Omicron rages, 94% of people in low-income countries still remain unvaccinated. This persistent division between the global North and the South has parallels in the media world too, and has been echoed in a number of events these past weeks.
Developing nations desperately need a strong and free press - and yet news organisations are under extreme financial pressure, with any number on the point of closing. The consequences to democracy are clear for all to see, as a healthy and sustainable media is critical to keeping power in check and accountable. An even bigger concern is the squeeze on small publishers reporting on the decay of local governance: the options to monetise digital successfully become tighter the smaller the operation.
In 25 years of being in journalism and publishing, I've spent almost equal lengths of time in both African and European markets. Prior to joining FT Strategies permanently I worked with the World Association of News Publishers’ Women in News programme which focuses on the upliftment of female editors, journalists and media employees in Africa, Russia, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions. More recently I worked closely with eight European publishers in the FT Strategies, Google News Initiative and INMA Subscription Lab programme, which wrapped up last week. (Read the report here.)
The challenge for developing nations
Swinging between such vastly different markets has left me with some deep concerns for the future of journalism in developing nations. As news organisations in the north are grappling already with “subscriber fatigue” and on the look out for the next big thing in monetisation, newsrooms in the global south - particularly in Africa - are still coming to terms with the body blow dealt to print by digital and Covid. Digital monetisation is in its infancy, despite Africa having the highest penetration of mobile use in the world.
Inroads into digital journalism are hampered by myriad factors: poor infrastructure and expensive data, lack of digital skills and maturity, lack of investment or re-investment in technology and content, lack of management vision, and newsrooms stripped by deep and damaging short-term cost-cutting exercises - making the foray into reader revenue that much more unattainable.
Many slipped into the Covid fugue state with functional newspaper businesses, but many have been forced to stop printing altogether as a result of dwindling cash flows, and suspended distribution. Added to these woes is an abysmal digital advertising outlook.
There is some hope and change
The bigger players, such as The Nation and The Standard group in Kenya, have launched paywall models uniquely positioned for the African market - and underpinned with the advantage in “ability to pay” wrought by the long presence of mobile money player M-pesa in east Africa. Their early subscriber numbers are promising: proving, against a commonly held view, that readers will pay for quality journalism and products, if it is made relatively easy for them to do so.
More publishers will surely follow to reader revenue, as will innovation and the agile responses to market needs already thriving in these markets - such as the superfast implementation of e-edition subscription and distribution strategies during Covid, and using WhatsApp to reach vast audiences with real, fact-checked news - but will this be enough?
The latest World Press Trends report (graph below from the WAN-IFRA WNMC presentation) shows the overall profit change over the past 12 months for developed countries was 21.8% - while it was -4.6% in developing countries.
Debate, discussion, research and skills and innovation funding in news publishing is almost always focused on developed nations. A key debate at the WAN-IFRA Congress was about funding for journalism: but it is one that Rasmus Kleis Neilsen of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford describes in a paper on commercial funding for news as “not something the public worries about” - although sustainable journalism, as we know, has “demonstrable societal benefits”.
Subsidies - a poisoned chalice
Government subsidies are a definite presence, but in developing nations can be a poison chalice - a coercive exchange for favourable coverage, or muted criticism of the ruling parties. It is not unusual to hear of governments awarding or withholding substantial advertising flow depending on the political positioning of the media organisation.
New funding protection mechanisms are emerging: Australia is pursuing the news media bargaining code to challenge the platforms, and the EU is working with a copyright reform bill. Some news organisations are moving to become non-profit entities. In the developing world, external funding is and always has come from generous foundation grants, and from the platforms themselves: The Google News Initiative and Facebook Accelerator programmes are funding skills development and product initiatives and investments that truthfully would otherwise not be happening at all.
How we can help
Over the past few weeks we at FT Strategies have worked with about 10 African publishers on a GNI-sponsored Digital Immersion programme. The innovative thinking and ambition of these publishers is extraordinary, and the journalistic contribution to their democracies unquestionable.
But all are missing that vital piece of the puzzle - strong and sustainable revenue streams and investment. Their audiences, advertisers and shareholders need to support them through these uncertain times so they may continue to grow and prosper and reach their own North Stars. But so does the global community. A threat to journalism in any part of the world is a threat to us all.
About the author
Lisa MacLeod is a Principal at FT Strategies. Lisa has over 25 years of experience in print to digital transformation, most notably at the Financial Times where she led newsroom operations, was an Assistant Editor and Managing Editor, Associate Editor and Head of Operations for FT.com. She led group-wide digital transformation projects at both of South Africa’s biggest publishers, Tiso Blackstar (now Arena Holdings) and Naspers’s 24.com. Lisa is former Vice President of the World Association of News Publishers, advisor and coach with Women in News, a board member of the World Editors Forum, Leader in Residence at the University of Lancashire and a mentor with the Journalism Innovation Leaders faculty.