OPINION: I arrived in New York on a freezing cold January day. I was the last of 21 fellows to arrive for the intensive five month Tow Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism fellowship at City University of New York’s venerated journalism school. Tinashe Mushakavanhu reports on his experience.
Eight countries were represented including Brazil, Colombia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States and Zimbabwe. In five months, our experiences and ideas cross-pollinated. The problems we faced locally, nationally, regionally were the same internationally. The internet has equalised us all.
Before embarking on this journey I had been working in Zimbabwe as an online editor for the Financial Gazette, whose major distinction is that it is the oldest private newspaper in the country. Over the years it has lost its status as a paper of authority and now characterised by a tepid editorial line. The owner is former Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono, whose political ambitions and connections to the seat of power are widely known.
It was not easy to initiate new ways of working. The paper, a weekly, is print-centric. The chasm between editorial and marketing was deep, the relationship merely farcical. We barely broke even. Recently, the company cut its staff by 35%. These latest job losses, in an already constricted media environment, were triggered by a Supreme Court of Zimbabwe judgment that gave employers power to fire workers on three months notice.
As a student of the Internet I sought answers elsewhere. Our problems were not unique. Digital publishing and social media have turned the economics of journalism upside down. Content is everywhere, produced by everyone, not just those who own the presses or control the airwaves or cables. That’s changed the media industry.
Two words triggered my curiosity: entrepreneurial journalism. If that is the model of the future, I wanted to learn more. There is no doubt the future will be shaped by journalists or media entrepreneurs who develop new business models and innovative projects – either working on their own, with startups, or within traditional media companies.
While millions of dollars are poured into developmental journalism in Africa, little investment is being poured into tangible innovation in African newsrooms. Besides falling behind in innovation trends, African media is too self-involved in local problems and often constricted by the prevailing politics or status quo they operate under.
During the fellowship I was inspired by the visits we made to new generation media companies run by and for young people such as Buzzfeed and VICE who are slowly upstaging traditional media companies in New York and globally. Their ability to attract millions of investment is a sign of their impact and viability because they are as unique as the generation they serve. Africa’s young people deserve news destinations that offer quality coverage tailored to them.
Obnoxious old men with small minds who cannot see beyond their short term self interests rule many African countries. As such, media is synonymous with propaganda and much of Africa’s young population lack platforms to set their experiences down in words or images, the ability to contribute in the recording of this transitional moment they live in.
Media disruption is by and large still lacking in Africa. NGOs and foundations only fund development related media projects to ‘fight diseases and corruption’ or ‘promote democracy and human rights’. Most newsrooms still follow print-centric traditions and lack digital integration. Indeed mobile phones are having a profound social impact but media companies in Africa are yet to fully tap into that potential.
Africa’s claim to be the “mobile continent” is even stronger than previously thought. Researchers predict internet use on mobile phones will increase 20-fold in the next five years on the continent – double the rate of growth in the rest of the world. By the end of 2014, it was forecast that there will be more than 635 million mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa.
There is a hunger in young Africans, no matter where they come from, for what is going on around them and the world in general. They just don’t want a global perspective of life but relevant hyper-local information that speak to their experiences.
While a new landscape of digital media products, platforms, consumption devices, and consumption patterns has emerged, and continues to evolve Africa remains behind. Considering that Africa is the mobile continent, the time for a new mobile news experience is now.
It is important that journalism schools in Africa also move with the times if our media is to survive in what is a very challenging operating climate. The revolutionary changes reshaping journalism have driven the industry to search for new financial models and respond to marketplace demands. Our newsrooms and our journalism schools must be part of that search.
Tinashe Mushakavanhu (@tinsmush) is a young media entrepreneur from Zimbabwe. He was a Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism fellow at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
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