African community media’s survival depends on going digital

By William Gumede

New technology, or rather more specifically, digitalisation is likely to disrupt Africa’s community media model, and possibly give it a new lease on life. In fact, the increased use of the mobile phone in Africa as a media device, has the power to boost the continent’s community media and community journalism.

Traditionally African local community media encompasses private community newspapers and radio, but rarely television. Radio is still the most popular form of community media in Africa. African religious organisations are also increasingly entering the local community media space – whether old media and digital ones.

Africa’s community media are ideally placed to hold local elected and public officials, business and traditional authorities accountable, but faces terrifying challenges.

Community media is at the coalface of change – it is usually closer to citizens, to local issues and local implementation of policies. It can provide a platform for local citizens to voice their concerns and influence local policies and events.

Local community journalism, especially those that want to hold local leaders, institutions and authorities accountable, is challenging.

In many African countries, holding local public officials, whether elected or public representative or traditional leaders or village elders accountable is terribly dangerous, even deadly. At worse you can be made to disappear. Your family may be blocked from receiving local public services.

At the village level your rights to graze communal land may be taken away. In places like Zimbabwe you may not receive your allotment of farms seeds or food in the drought-stricken countryside. In some places you may not even receive burial rights.

You can be shunned by your local community – become social outcasts – in cultures where identity is strongly woven with one’s local community.

In African countries, local governments are often run by either standalone local political strongmen or ones linked to national parties and leaders. Alternatively, local communities are run by traditional chiefs linked to governing parties.

Local public servants similarly wield extraordinary power in local communities where the population is often most illiterate, poor and ignorant of their rights.

But local business leaders equally often wield extraordinary power because they are likely to be the only source of jobs, income and investment in the community. These local “big men” have terrifyingly unfettered power.

In many cases independent broadcasters and newspapers stay away from politics less they have their licences or advertising revoked.

Although the world is increasingly global, people still want to know about the happenings in their immediate environment – providing relevant local news is community media’s competitive advantage.

The challenge for community media is to provide relevant local content – whether local politics, news or entertainment. They have to become more interactive with their audiences. They must also use local expertise better.

The current business model of many community media outlets is often not sustainable. The problem is that many community media are not managed as businesses but are often loosely manage as non-profits.

It is very difficult for community media to secure advertising, from local businesses and governments. Their advertising is often overly dominant on government or development aid grants, or one dominant donor.

When they do get advertising from local government, the authorities often demand they write positively about them.

Community will have to change their advertising model. They have to better sell their reach to their local markets to potential advertisers. They have to partner closer with local entrepreneurs, non-governmental institutions within their catchment areas – such as higher education institutions and public institutions.

Community media is often a training ground for talented journalists, who when successful move on to larger media houses. Community media must try to retain the services of these talented former personnel even once they’ve moved on. But community media must also secure young, curious and digitally savvy young journalists to stay relevant.

The rise of the mobile phone in Africa – and the increased uptake of new media platforms such as the internet, social media and message services, is giving ordinary people new voice opportunities, increasing public participation and providing new platforms to hold governments and leaders accountable.

It has opened up new ways to produce and distribute independent information to local and national audiences in Africa, which had in the past been dominated by government media.

Increasingly Africans listen to radio, get print news and even television from mobile hand-held devices. New media technologies have been used to great effect in recent popular uprisings on the continent, whether in Burundi, Egypt or Tunisia, and offers new possibilities for popular mobilisation for democratisation in Africa. New technologies may change the form of community media. Digital platforms are potential less costly and may drive down the costs of operating community media.

It is very likely that the community radio and journalism of the future, whether print, radio or television, will be on mobile phones. Although community television in Africa has not taken off, in time, new technology may make it easier for a new generation of African community television.

Furthermore, digital platforms may also give community print media, which has particularly declined, new opportunities.

African community media will have to diversify their platforms and come out as multiple social media platforms. Digital platforms offer African community more opportunities to interact with their audiences – crucial if they want to provide relevant content and retain audience engagement. New technology also offers new opportunities to foster citizen community journalism. Armed with their mobile phone and the humble SMS every citizen can now be a community journalist.

New technologies offer new opportunities to get local community media and civil society out to global audiences. Through social media platforms, the Internet and SMS, local voices can now send out their messages to the outside world, in ways not possible before.

Local community media must partner more closely with civil society organisations. The very obvious form of collaboration is for civil society organisations carrying the journalism of local community media – and local community covering the activities of local civil society.

Finally, community media in one community must partner and exchange to produce products with community media in another community, within the network of a region, country and across Africa. Digitalisation makes joint productions and product sharing so much easier.

This is an extract from William Gumede’s presentation on “African Community Media of the Future”, at Bloomberg’s “Africa 2025: The Media Landscape of the Future”, Africa Business Media Innovators 2018 conference, 18-20 November 2018, Livingstone, Zambia

More stories in Issue 105

Contributors

William Gumede

William Gumede is Associate Professor at the School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand. He is chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation. He is also the author of a number of no.1 bestsellers including his most recent book Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg)

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