14 January 2013

Rwanda: You Get What You Pay for


In my article - Behind the headlines lies a conspiracy - published in The New Times on Monday January 7, 2013, I was somewhat critical of how the media has covered the conflict in DRC.

I would understand if someone drew the conclusion that I'm anti-media, however, it is quite the contrary.

I had a short stint reading English news for a private radio while I was in college. I wasn't a professional by any means but I got to see what journalists go through on a daily basis. In Rwanda, while many critics argue that there's a lack of media freedom, I think the bigger issues are lack of capacity and the means to carry out their tasks.

Let's face it, journalists don't get paid very well. Before you start stoning media bosses, most don't have the money either. Why? People want news for free. Now to get free news, you either have to have loaded sponsors (advertising) or pay journalists crumbs. The latter is usually the case. Which educated and experienced journalist will work for nothing?

Most leave the field to seek for greener pastures. Those who stay in the field survive hand to mouth. The rest are hustlers who figure they learned a few grammar rules and can wing it. The quality of some of the writing should make all of us nervous.

About a month and half ago, I attended the African Editors Forum in Kigali. They talked about the need to work together as practitioners and brought up the need for government to offer the media more support. Afterwards, I cornered the managing editor of an English paper in Rwanda and asked him why they allow dreadful pieces into the paper. I was vehement, "why should I pay for such horrible writing? Huh, why?" He looked at me and said, "At least you get that. You have to pay to get better quality."

The Rwandan media scene is young. Rwandans, like myself, want quality news but are not willing to pay Rwf 700 to buy a paper. Media houses want to hire educated and experienced journalists but not pay them the deserved salary. The two go hand in hand. If papers make money, they hire great journalists.

This might be a societal issue. Rwandan is generally an oral culture. That's why radio is so popular and why most of us don't keep journals like the French.

But not to oversimplify, it mostly has to do with financial ability but things are changing. I was wonderfully surprised last week while at the hair salon when a teenage girl pulled out an Edgar Allan Poe classic.

Why is reading so important? Well, it helps you to write better as it exposes you to new ideas and styles of writing. It teaches you grammar rules unconsciously and it widens your vocabulary. Reading should be everyone's péché mignon! The more you read, the smarter you become and the more confident you are when you write.

Back to the issue of paying for our news, our local newspapers have to figure out ways to get people to pay for the news. This publication is read online by Rwandans living abroad so electronic payment is a possibility. Local readers could pay either through their banks or through local telephone carriers for monthly online subscriptions. While I'm no prophet, I think the era of print publication might be nearing its end so let's start to think five to ten years down the line.

As for us, the readers, we have to be willing to dig into our pockets if we want quality. Journalism is a noble profession. Journalists record our common history so let's support them.

In the meantime, let me encourage local journalists to enhance their skills. Find a mentor - preferably an experienced journalist - to read your work and suggest improvement. Take criticism for what it's worth. My first literature professor murdered a piece I thought was the Mona Lisa. He was a nasty bugger but he sure knew how to write and I had to make a decision to either reject all he said or swallow my pride and work on my grammar, structure and vocabulary.

Final thought - with the advancement of technology, we have a tendency to relegate reading to the back of the class but make it a point to find the time to read. And to parents, give your children books or the day's newspaper not video games. It's a worthwhile investment for their future and ours.

The author is a communications consultant.

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