Kenya: COVID-19 Gives Kenyan Media Chance to Reclaim Lost Glory

Mirriam Kaliza, Deutsche Welle's correspondent in Malawi: "Every morning when I come into the office, before I interact with anyone, I need to wash my hands with soap. The secretary also has to give me a face mask and gloves. It's so difficult to type on the keyboard wearing gloves."
opinion

The coronavirus pandemic is no doubt the news story of the year.

For many journalists, this is what you call the once-in-a-lifetime story. To some journalists, this will be their big break, the story that defined their careers.

Many prominent journalists will emerge from this pandemic: cub reporters, early career journalists and editors will build their journalistic mettle in this pandemic.

Expect a tome written by journalists -- mostly Western journalists -- from December this year at around Thanksgiving, detailing their experiences in reporting coronavirus from the frontlines.

I foresee a massive academic jamboree. Media scholars will be falling over themselves to conduct research, write conference papers, book chapters and journal articles for 'special issues' on how the media covered the pandemic, applying a slew of theories from framing to priming and the much-misunderstood 'agenda-setting theory'.

Expect coronavirus-themed industry conferences from when the lockdowns are lifted to late 2022.

SILVER LINING

I get dizzy just by imagining the numerous coronavirus-inclined 'call for proposals' for grants targeted at journalists interested in covering the impact of the pandemic of the century.

What I am saying is that coronavirus, to the media industry and from a media perspective, is a blessing in disguise. A new lease of life. A silver lining tucked in a very dark cloud. A happy accident, if you may.

A gift from the gods to an industry that was grappling with a pervasive disruption by digital technologies and shifting audience consumption habits.

I know it is hard to believe, but this is going to be a watershed moment for the global media industry and especially our local industry.

I say this because the appetite for news is at an all-time high. Now more than ever, people -- Kenyans -- are turning to the media for factual information about a pandemic that has, for the first time in their lives, made them not attend church for one month and counting.

Globally, the media is experiencing exponential growth in subscriptions, pageviews and website visits more than ever.

According to a study conducted by comScore, a media measurement company, the total number of minutes spent by American audiences on news sites increased by 46 per cent in the week of March 9-15, 2020.

BUSINESS MODEL

The study cites that 'the week of March 9-15 was the highest week of news visits this year by far -- more than 100 million more news visits than next highest week (which was the previous week March 2-8)'.

Netflix announced that it added 15.8 million subscribers, more than twice as many subscribers as targeted in the first quarter of 2020.

Netflix revenues for the first three months of 2020 amounted to $5.77bn, a 28 per cent increase from the same time last year.

My hunch is that the situation with Kenyan audiences is not too different from the US ones. Granted, the pandemic has caused reduced economic activity across the country resulting to reduced advertising revenue for Kenyan media.

The business model that was undermined by the digital disruption is now a victim of the pandemic. Media companies, both locally and globally, have been forced to scale down their operations; journalists are taking salary cuts and worse, some will be laid off.

But there is a silver lining. This pandemic presents Kenyan media a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with their audiences. This is an opportunity for media to outdo themselves with expert-driven, in-depth, Day-Two journalism.

This is the time to tinker with new forms of storytelling and to tease out the data journalism prowess that Kenyan media have perfected over time.

REGAINING TRUST

Trust in the media has resurged; the media is now the dominant source of news and, for the first time in a long time, people are making appointments with their TV sets to watch news.

This is the time for Kenyan media to prove their fidelity to facts, objectivity and truth, and to relentlessly call out fake news and underperforming government officials.

Kenyan media must maintain the momentum of this streak of journalistic excellence exhibited in the past few weeks if they are to survive the Covid-19 regime.

Media and their audiences have found their way back to each other like long lost lovers. Herein lies the most important opportunity for Kenyan media in the history of their existence.

This is the time to prove to your audiences that news is worth paying for. I cannot think of a more opportune moment for Kenyan media to reclaim its lost glory than this pandemic.

I will end with some last famous words, that Kenyan media must never waste a good crisis.

The writer is the director of the Innovation Centre at Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications. The views expressed in this column are the writer's.

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