Changing Society: What Should Africa's Media Do?

Published on 7th September 2009

Surfers in a cyber cafe           Photo courtesy
It is critically important that the media is professional and ethical. This is especially so for countries like Tanzania which are still in transition from mindsets driven by command political and economic systems to liberal ones that genuinely allow free ideas to contend in a pluralistic political market driven economic sphere. Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd US President, and principal authority of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, was not out of his mind when he surmised in 1787:  

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first objective should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

But such preference of newspapers (today represented by a broad scope media industry) to governments, in creating a fertile milieu, or what Regis Debray, the French radical theoretician and comrade terms “mediosphere” that represents people’s opinions, demands that the media is not only truly representative of the people’s opinions, but also enjoys unquestionable public trust. 

Here lies the challenge for Tanzanian media professionalism and ethics in an environment that is often pronounced by in-box thinking cutting across the whole gamut of culture, politics and religion. How the media responds to this challenge by breaking out of the box, becoming rooted in ethical culture and not becoming polarised along political lines will define its lofty fourth estate role of being the watchdog and gatekeeper of broad societal interests.  

The American sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in his magisterial 1970 book, Future Shock, that the world was faced, between that time and the 21st Century, by “an abrupt collision with the future.” Indeed, in the past decade, that collision has not only dawned but intensified. It is driven by internationalisation, commercialisation and digitalisation. Such collision with the future, marked by technological advances and the growth of the global village irrespective of the huge chasm in living standards that exists between the West and the South, has now caught up with poor countries like Tanzania.

The global, regional and national media has seen a sea change in ownership and organisational structures and in technology absorption. A new media landscape has emerged that fundamentally questions the basis of historical or traditional structures and modes of operation. It is indeed imperative that our Media Executives acquire a deeper grasp and understanding of what is truly a rapidly changing global and African media landscape. Equally, they need to appreciate the impact of the new media that is highly digitalised and, in turn, not only seek to appreciate and re-define their roles and the nature of media operating systems but also introduce new models of strategic management that fit changing conditions. There are opportunities as well as risks involved in this institutional migration. 

What is of particular importance is for media owners and executives to have a clear understanding of the specific African and Tanzanian media characteristics that may not necessarily equate those applicable in developed societies. The rapidly changing media landscape can be contextualised in a number of new factors and innovations that are taking place and continue to evolve. Let me attempt to mention a few of them.  

Workers lay a fiber optic cable    Photo courtesy
First, there is the pace and direction of change in the media sector that is influenced and driven by the ‘Net Generation.’ This generation is defined, in the rich world, as people born between 1977 and 1997. The age dimension in Africa could be slightly lower to include people born from 1970. These people are regarded to be largely responsible for the transformation in the relationship between media companies and customers and, as a corollary, for new business models that are being adopted by media firms. It is a large demographic that cuts across the rich and poor world alike and which, increasingly, through digital and mobile technologies, drives media and advertising content to fit their needs and those of older generations. New technologies such as the broadband will further accelerate the pace and direction of media growth in the next few years. The entry and penetration of broadband infrastructure in Africa and in the East African Community countries, thanks to SeaCom and other service providers, will particularly bolster the next wave of internet-driven mobile expansion, advertising and television.

Second, the world is fast experiencing the democratisation of the media landscape. This transformation is taking different modes. There is, for example, the growing use of mobile phones equipped with still and video cameras. These gadgets are proving to be powerful allies with the internet in revolutionising the global media landscape. Thus, from Morocco, to Pakistan, Iraq, South Korea, Tibet-China and, lately Iran, footage of violent protests, clashes and even terrorist attacks are instantaneously captured by camera phones and uploaded onto the internet with YouTube, Face book, Myspace and Twitter internet platforms.  

What is interesting about this revolution in social media is that, while mainstream journalists sometimes get confined to their offices and hotel rooms because of state controls and restrictions imposed on them, citizen photojournalists become the new independent media. With micro-blogging through social media, a new form of fostering democracy is also emerging. Indeed, Nielsen.com in its April 2009 publication, The Global Online Media Landscape, Identifying Opportunities in a Challenging Market notes that social networking sites eclipsed E-mail in global reach at 68.4% versus 64.8% in February 2009 and that the pace is getting faster. It  is equally interesting that the advertising industry is closely watching the impact of social networking sites to determine their suitability and measurable robustness as channels for brand advertisements.  

Third, the entry of digital satellite and cable television is also fast transforming the media landscape with its multi-channel offers. The impact of 24hours News Channels such as CNN, BBC and Sky at the global level and the emerging 24 hours African-wide and regional mixed channels of news and entertainment such as SABC, ITV, TAB One and Star TV needs to be closely analysed in terms of the competitive mix of news sources. For example, the morning TV coverage of main news features covered in newspapers by both ITV and TBC One could impact the volume of sales of mainstream newspapers. When coupled by the growing on-line availability of the key daily newspapers at no cost, the revenue streams of newspaper owners could seriously be eroded as internet penetration deepens and high speed broadband infrastructure, which enables more affordable internet access and usage, becomes commonplace.  

The implications of all these emerging factors and innovations on the media market are complex and demand alignment of media corporate strategy and resources. It is critical that media owners and executives clearly understand these implications; identify strategic options and chart out a roadmap that assures business competitiveness and profitability. There are a number of strategic factors which the Tanzania media industry could need to consider:

First, it is important that Media Houses undertake a comprehensive assessment of the current and evolving business environment embracing the impact of emerging technologies on their business models, customer usage trends, competitor strategies and the efficacy of traditional media business segments which drive their present revenues. Second, the steady shift in readership from traditional, off-line newspapers to on-line channels would have to be properly assessed in financial terms.  

Third, existing media skills, core competencies and capabilities have to be closely reviewed in the context of a more successful business model that fits the changed media operations that are more technology driven. Identification of new education models in journalism is resultantly essential. Fourth, management decisions on strategic direction must consider the dynamic relationship between the Tanzania media organisation, the obtaining environment (notably the level of literacy, income levels, internet availability and affordability and the dominance of Kiswahili as the main media user language) on the one hand, and the need to structure media activities to fit organisational resources on the other.  

Fifth, the geographic, mega-city concentration of media economic power in Tanzania and, indeed, in the whole EAC region, would mean that the print and electronic media largely compete for the same audience and advertisers. In such cases, product differentiation, good product distribution and control, and transaction cost management considerations will constitute the pivotal competitive strategies to be well developed and promoted. Exploiting new sources of value in the media industry would equally be an important growth strategy. Sixth, as it has dominantly been stated in organisation design literature over the years, structure follows strategy. This means that the strategies unleashed to cope with the changing global and African media landscape must inform the structure of the media organisation.

It cannot be overemphasised that it is the types of products and services which business firms provide, coupled with the nature of their value chains, relations with suppliers, distributors and customers that crucially inform the structure of an organisation. Equally important in organisation design, is the nature of ownership of the firm and the personality of corporate leaders and owners. In the case of large media houses such as IPP Media which has cross-media and cross-business unit activities that cut across print, radio and television, determination of best organisational forms is even more complex. Thus questions relating to the degree to which diversification and consolidation of such media conglomerates, as well as strategic alliances, improves overall profitability are central in determining appropriate organisational forms, though this theory is easier said than done, often because personality issues and corporate politics take sway.  

Finally, the Tanzania media would need to seriously address the question of creating an organisational culture that supports and motivates continuous learning and adapting to changing conditions in the market environment. A clear distinction between the 20th century and 21st century organisation is that the latter is built primarily to mobilise the intangible assets that generate higher returns per employee as opposed primarily to mobilise labour and capital.  

A 21st century firm, media and otherwise, can best create wealth by mobilising the mind power of the work force; promoting talents, knowledge, skills and collaborative relationships across the entire company. To build and ingrain such organisational culture requires an organisation design that allows talented employees to direct and hold themselves accountable for results. The challenge before media owners and executives in the digital age is therefore to create organisational structures that fit a new culture; a culture that celebrates new sources of wealth creation that are primarily centred on the mind power of the workforce. This also means that rewarding talent is an important ingredient of promoting mind power. Rewarding talent must be viewed in the broader context of staff upward mobility, exposure to different tasks and management training. Pay is important but it is not an end in itself.  

There is little doubt that the global media landscape is rapidly changing. However, is it not correct to postulate that the change is more technological than ideological? I am raising this point because the challenges of social, economic and political development in the West are clearly not similar to those in the poor world, at least not equally similar in scope and intensity. In such context, one probably needs to distinguish the ideological character of journalism in, say Tanzania and Africa generally, from journalism in the US and Europe. What is questionable, however, is whether such ideological distinction is of any specific relevance as to how the media organises and operates.  

Yes, the market dynamics and technology applications in the West may differ from those in the South. But would such differences pose major divergences in how media firms respond, for example, to competitive pressures, to professionalism and ethical behaviour? It is important to ponder these issues as they are crucial in determining strategic direction of media firms.  

By Amb. Juma Mwapachu,

Secretary General, East African Community


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