Media market changes call for flexibility in managing talent

By: LINUS GITAHI

I have retired from media after nine years at Nation Media Group (NMG), having spent another 18 years peddling drugs at GlaxoSmithKline in East and West Africa. Eighteen years of drug peddling and nine years peddling the truth told me there is another way. I am now trying my hand at entrepreneurship, which is itself somewhere between drugs and the truth.

When I walked into NMG, I had my own ideas about what this very high-profile CEO position entails. But six months into the job I had a TV channel shut in Uganda, some threats from Tanzania and some journalists walking out to join a new upstart. The honeymoon had come to an abrupt end.

I ran NMG at a most transformative time in the evolution of media. It was a time of varying degrees of media freedom across the four countries that the company operates in. During this period, I have learnt a few things that I would love to share as my parting shot to media owners and journalists — although you never know, you might see me again — it’s a small world.

MEDIA RESPONSIBILITY AND PRESS FREEDOM

Freedom of the Press is something we need to protect with our soul. Actually, the government that is good bedfellows with the media is not yet elected, and we must be on our guard at all times.

However, to have the moral credibility on this front we must ensure that media responsibility goes hand in hand with this freedom. Doing more to tell the African story better is part of the responsibility that goes with this freedom.

We cannot keep fighting for media freedom without holding ourselves to high standards of responsibly. We will disagree with the politics or the government of the day, but that is never an excuse to show hatred of our country or continent or indeed humanity.

TAKING CARE OF JOURNALISTS

To safeguard our journalism and our freedoms we must find a way of looking after our journalists. In most media outlets on the continent the bulk of the reporting is done by correspondents, who are freelancers and who get paid only when their story gets published.

There is a problem right there. The decision to run the story or not is the editors’, while the correspondent must put food on the table for the family. It is not rocket science to see that there would be every possibility that the journalist will be compromised.

At NMG we started a journey where today 95 per cent of our correspondents will be on a form of retainer, thus guaranteeing them the ability to meet basic needs, even as they get paid for the stories.

We must ensure that we are never viewed in the same way as FIFA. It’s simple: If we do not give a fair reward to the journalists, someone else will.

DATA-DRIVEN JOURNALISM

Training across the continent, particularly on using data to drive stories and conversations in media, is far from satisfactory. In the brave new world of citizen journalism, our media must get better at using a lot more facts and data to drive conversations.

Yes, at NMG we have started and have had for the last seven years a Media Lab, where all young graduates go through a nine-month on-the-job training.

However, many media organisations on the continent still cannot afford such elaborate training and I wish that some of the money that is pumped into Africa via NGOs could go towards such kind of training.

You cannot tell the African story if you do not know it. You cannot tell it well if you do not have facts and data. Having said that, the future of media and technology is bright.

Historically, the barrier to innovation and development in Africa was the huge capital required in today’s information age.

There is no reason the next Facebook or Twitter cannot come from Africa, which has been at the forefront of the mobile phone revolution. Media organisations ought to be at the forefront of this innovation.

Whether you are a rich media house or not doesn’t matter because encouraging creativity and innovation among our young folks is actually not an expensive affair.

DEVELOPING PARTNERSHIPS

For Africa’s media to win in the future, this is one word they must embrace. We will need partnerships with Google (and today Google is having media for breakfast), Facebook and other international media, but most importantly we will need intra-Africa partnerships.

For instance, like-minded print and broadcast media should come together and launch a common basket from where everybody can draw the happenings in a different country.

Punch in Nigeria, for instance, the New Vision and the Monitor in Uganda, the Nation in Kenya, the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, the Graphic in Ghana, etc., can have a common basket of stories so that if something is happening in, let’s say, Zambia, all the Graphic editor in Ghana needs to do is to get into the basket, pick the story from the POST newspaper basket, complete with the byline, and since the rules of the game would have been established, the sharing would be very easy and could bring down costs.

For instance, NMG has about 30 correspondents around Africa and that could change significantly and most importantly such a programme would cost nothing.

RADIO – THE PROBLEM CHILD

Another thought I would like to share is on radio. Today, radio is by far the most significant medium, with listenerships of over 80 per cent across most African countries, but radio journalists, most of whom run community radios, are the least trained on the continent.

Are we then surprised that in most conflicts, from the Rwanda genocide to the Kenya post-election violence of 2008, radio has often been mentioned as a medium that helped fuel the conflicts?

We must pay attention to this and we must find ways and means of training those folks and most importantly help them create viable business models that allow responsible journalism to thrive while making a return for the investor.

DEVELOPMENT JOURNALISM

Must Africa reporting always be sexy and/or political to sell on the continent? In my last few years at NMG, I discovered that it is not necessarily the case.

Working with the leading agricultural university in Kenya (Egerton University) we launched a pull-out on Saturdays called Seeds of Gold, a magazine that deals with everything agricultural – tips and successes.

It made agriculture itself sexy and dynamic and worthy investing in even with people with little capital. It has been an overwhelming success, making Saturday consistently in the top two selling days in the week.

This has demonstrated to us that development journalism can actually drive sales of a mainstream general newspaper. We have now extended Seeds of Gold onto our TV platform and recent data indicate it will do equally well.

THE DIGITAL FUTURE

There is no doubt that the future of media in Africa is digital. What I find surprising is that the older journalists and editors still cling to the good old newspaper and do not have time for Facebook, Twitter and digital media in general.

They, like their American and European counterparts, are watching circulation go down and mourning in a little corner. In a nearby room would be young, enterprising digital journalists busy driving audiences without a clue how revenue can be made.

Africa media need to make digital media mainstream and media owners ought to begin to make multimedia journalism an imperative. In my experience, the old, experienced well-known journalists are at times the biggest impediment to the entrenchment of new media in our organisations.

TALENT MANAGEMENT

In conclusion, as social media and citizen media grow, traditional newspapers’ prospects would decline over time. That calls for two things. The first is flexibility in talent management.

The time for permanent and pensionable journalists is probably ending for organisations. It’s in the interest of both the good journalist and the organisations to nurture a flexible relationship.

Second, the good journalist, because of his content, is becoming the king. Consumers will increasingly be more loyal to the news source rather than the platform, and good journalists are set to reap big in this emerging brave, new world. Restructuring the newsroom is probably an idea whose time has come.

Finally, as I stand here our only regional newspaper is still banned in Tanzania, and our entry as a media house into South Sudan is still-born because they will not even allow our existing publications in.

The challenges are many but so are the opportunities. We have grown the profit of this business four-fold in eight years. Hats off to all you media owners and practitioners who in your own way have helped to push the envelope so that those who come after us may find it a little easier and hence focus more on the opportunities.

We certainly believe that the men and women at NMG have done and continue to do their bit in helping to create the Africa that we would all be proud of. It is certainly within sight and I urge all of us to keep our eyes focused on that ultimate prize.

SOURCE: DAILY NATION