Digital Threat To Africa’s Print Media?

The print media in Africa, unlike in Europe and North America, is expanding and showing healthy profits. However, as in the West, new technology, particularly digital broadcasting and the ease of access on a number of personal devices, is fast approaching the continent. Is the African media prepared for the changes? In Europe and north […]


The print media in Africa, unlike in Europe and North America, is expanding and showing healthy profits. However, as in the West, new technology, particularly digital broadcasting and the ease of access on a number of personal devices, is fast approaching the continent. Is the African media prepared for the changes?

In Europe and north America, newspaper circulations have been falling. This is due, largely, to the emergence of instant media on the web that is free to access. The question consumers appear to be asking is why pay money for yesterday’s news when you can follow events, minute by minute, as they unfold; and for no fee?

And the newspapers are not just losing readers to the electronic media. Advertisers, who are so essential to a newspaper’s revenue, have also been taking their business the same way.

To save money, some newspaper publishers have begun shrinking their circulation area, too, exacerbating the trend.

Newspapers have themselves moved from print to offering content online. Many do so for free, but some, like The Times of London, charge a subscription fee, offering their titles on mobile devices such as tablet computers, smartphones and eReaders. African Business is also now available online and on iPad. However, the relative lack of accessibility to the online world in Africa means that the continent’s newspapers are not yet having to face the same challenge to their business model.

Kenya’s Nation Media Group recently announced a 25.1% growth in pre-tax profits in the first half of this year. The group’s newspaper division reported an increase in circulation of 10% and a 21% increase in revenue. One of the group’s newspapers, Business Daily, recorded a growth of operating profits of 881% as its circulation and revenue followed the upward trend.

Linus Gitahi, the group’s chief executive, warned though that the performance in the second half of the year may not be so impressive. The group imports a great deal of newsprint from abroad and the volatility of the country’s currency and its exchange rate has made this an expensive process.

And Kenya’s inflation rate, which continues to rise and as of July stood at 15.5%, threatens to eat into the group’s profits, render its newspapers more expensive to buy and strangle revenue from advertising.

Traditionally, Kenya’s newspapers have been able to rely on advertising revenue more than their rivals in neighbouring countries. Kenya’s is the largest economy in the region with a relatively well developed private sector. Expenditure on advertising is therefore greater than it is elsewhere.

Apart from being a valuable source of income, advertising helps the newspaper industry to be independent of the state and freer to criticise. This has not insulated it from accusations of bias and venality, however; but a press that can stand on its own two feet is less liable to have to cave in to political pressure.

Another difficulty that the group has identified is next year’s general election. Such an event might ordinarily increase circulation of a newspaper, but in Kenya, political campaigns, fought negatively, have in the past arrested economic growth, something newspapers can play an important role of combating by holding the contestants to account.

Elsewhere on the continent, the picture is similar, with circulation figures being very healthy, although for complex reasons.

South Africa has traditionally enjoyed a free and opinionated press. Whereas much of the mainstream press, which relied on a predominantly white and wealthy middle class, has struggled of late, the sections of the press which cater for the less wealthy members of South African society have seen a boom in sales. By aiming at mostly a black, working class readership, the Daily Sun newspaper succeeded in creating a market for itself that had previously not existed. The title now has the biggest circulation of any daily newspaper in South Africa at more than half a million and this success has seen new tabloid newspapers emerge forcing established names to rethink their strategies. This is something other African newspapers would do well to pay attention to.

The downside, however, is that by targeting a less affluent market that is not as attractive to advertisers, they will find turning circulation into profit is less easy.

But as owners of loss-making newspapers will tell you, the influence that can be wielded by a big selling newspaper is sometimes worth subsidising.

Too much sensationalism?

Where circulation figures are on the way down, the newspapers that sell more than any other tend to be sensationalist tabloids, which deal in celebrity gossip rather than hard news stories.

Although tabloid journalism is not necessarily sensationalist, there is a danger that quality journalism in Africa, or anywhere for that matter, will have to take a back seat to the sex lives of the rich and famous, if they are to survive in an extremely competitive environment. All industries have to, at some point, face up to regulation. Indeed, foreign investment often relies on a strict regulatory framework being in place. Regulation in the media is a thorny subject, however.

South Africa’s press have spoken out against proposed government legislation that they fear is part of a broader attempt to prevent them from criticising the nation’s rulers, who themselves have voiced frustration at what they believe to be sensationalist reporting. There have been moves to reduce advertising support for newspapers deemed hostile to the government, and officials are determined to increase the circulation of a government-owned monthly newspaper.

Ideally, an unregulated and unfettered press, free to report what it wants, would be the corner stone of any vibrant democracy.

However, the ongoing phone-hacking scandal in the UK involving Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and probably many other publishers, has revealed that self-regulation is not necessarily a way to guarantee ethical behaviour among the ladies and gentlemen of the press.

The example of the Murdoch-owned News of the World, which had a history spanning 168 years and was the most popular in the UK, shows that no newspaper is too important to fail. When newspapers abuse the trust their readers show in them then their next issue may be their last.

All newspapers will eventually have to face the reality of the internet eventually. With new submarine broadband cables connecting Africa to the rest of the world and efforts being made to connect coastal landing points with inland areas, more and more Africans are going to be able to access news content online.

South Africa’s Daily Maverick in August launched South Africa’s first daily newspaper – iMaverick – designed for Apple’s iPad, a tablet device for viewing web content. Other publications which have taken the same route have seen rather disappointing results, despite initial uptake.

This may be where the future lies and the technology is worth persisting with, especially with the increase in popularity of smartphones such as RIM’s BlackBerry, all capable of displaying news content via especially designed apps.

Radio, TV adapt to new order

Traditionally, the transistor radio was a must-have gadget for Africans. It was their main portal for the latest news, usually broadcast by state-run companies. Like everything else, this has changed.
Community radio across Africa, according to The Centre for International Media Assistance (CIMA), grew by 1,386% between 2000 and 2006. There is a concern in the industry that it will be drowned out by the new wave of media emerging from new technologies. Just as the invention of the Gutenberg printing press reduced the cost of publishing and helped democratise information, so new innovations in communications technology have sidelined the state as the dominant source of news, which now mostly comes in snappy bulletins every half an hour on the thousands of FM radio stations that exist across Africa.

The penetration of mobile phones with internet connectivity has been driven by the popularity of mobile banking services. This also means that every mobile phone user can access live streaming radio online from their phones, which can act as more than just audio devices.

However, as is the case with the world’s newspapers, its radio industries must not be paralysed by the sudden and rapid rate of change of so many decades of stasis. Fears that FM radio will soon be a thing of the past are perhaps unfounded. No matter how long FM has left, digital methods of broadcasting are not only increasingly available but offer possibilities for broadcasters and listeners alike that did not previously exist.

But for radio to thrive in the 21st century it must, paradoxically, think beyond providing only audio services. The most successful radio stations in the modern era offer a rich range of content on their websites, including music videos, in-depth news analysis, archived highlights, photo albums, competitions and live streaming of broadcasts via webcam.

Popular radio station websites are themselves generators of revenue by means of advertising, and greater opportunities for listener interaction, on Facebook and Twitter.

Indeed, where the full potential of listener interaction has been realised, even news gathering has been transformed by ordinary members of the public reporting news events as they happen.

The television broadcast industry is another that is having to change with the times after so long of being sure of itself. Digital technology has revolutionised television viewing wherever it has been introduced.

Digital roll-out is a slow and expensive process. Even relatively wealthy and small countries, like Britain, have yet to be fully connected. So the challenges to digital roll-out across Africa are huge. Some African countries, however, have had at least some access to digital broadcasting since the mid 1990s, originally via satellite but now more often by means of high-speed fibre-optic cables.

South African public television stations have been broadcasting in digital since 2008 to go with the private digital broadcasters already operating by then. Full analogue switch off is scheduled for 2013.  
Digital television allows broadcasters to offer a broader range of services than its older analogue counterpart. Viewers may have a choice of content from a single channel. The viewer is also able to organise viewing more efficiently, by setting the technology to record programmes and entire series automatically for watching at a time that suits.

By offering premium services such as movie channels, sports channels and pay-per-view services, broadcasters may generate extra revenue. But even before most of Africa has jumped onto the digital bandwagon, the technology has already advanced further.

Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) which broadcasts content using internet protocols is a system by which broadcasters are able to deliver content to compatible devices with tight proprietorial controls.
The system allows for almost endless possibilities for revenue generation. Imagine, for a moment, you are watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. If you take a shine to the hero’s mobile phone you may pause the action and ‘select’ the phone on the screen. An advertisement for that phone will pop up onto the screen along with details of stockists nearest you or recommended retail websites.

Internet TV is a rival to IPTV. It uses already tried and tested infrastructures to deliver content to any device capable of going online. It is not restricted to a geographical region and users can access content from anywhere, as they can now. Nor is it dependent on individual carriers or on licenced devices.

Both platforms allow users to access content from a variety of devices. Streaming television to smartphones, tablet computers and PCs has not made the television in the corner of your living room redundant in regions where it is popular, but it has meant that broadcasters have had to innovate rapidly.

But this depends on capacity building. But consumers will have to be encouraged to invest in new technology themselves. In this regard, the continent is among the fastest growing in the world, with particular emphasis on mobile technology. In just a few years, competition has increased, with foreign investment in Pay TV channels from Europe, India, China and North America. And that competition is forcing providers to make the most of their platforms to attract customers.

Perhaps the most important realisation Africa’s media has to come to is that the definition between television, radio, print and online services is no longer clear. Movies on telephones, radio on televisions, newspapers on tablet computers.

A successful media outlet in the future will be multiplatform with invisible seams. The industry leaders that emerge will be those who are most adept at understanding areas of the media they have traditionally not been part of and integrating them into a coherent service which can reach their customers in all manner of ways.

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