By Moses Wasamu
The media industry in Kenya is going through turbulent times, with layoffs, dwindling advertising revenues and a tense political environment being some of the causes of the instability.
Radio Africa Group, which runs a number of radio stations including KISS 100, Classic 105, Radio Jambo, East FM, KISS TV and The Star newspaper, recently sacked about 90 workers. Nation Media Group (NMG), the biggest media house in East Africa, retrenched more than 30 employees barely five months after shutting down three radio stations and a Swahili TV station.
Royal Media Services, one of the fastest growing media houses in the country, also laid off over 100 employees, citing developments in the sector in the last couple of years, which it said had adversely affected its business environment. The management said the reorganization was necessitated by a shrinking broadcast market.
Things have not been made any better by a recent move by the government to advertise through its own website (myGov.co.ke) and its own print publication, thus cutting off spending by various ministries and departments that benefitted media houses in the past. The print publication is inserted in two local dailies – People Daily and The Star – one of which the Kenyan President has substantial shares in. It is estimated that about 30 per cent of media advertising revenue has been coming from the government.
The changes have caused panic in media circles. No one knows who will be next on the chopping board.
Industry experts say these moves could be aimed at reducing wage bill in the face of dwindling readership of newspapers in Kenya and falling advertising revenue. Increased competition by digital outlets has cut advertising revenues for most media houses.
Dickens Olewe, who formerly worked for The Star newspaper and is currently with the BBC in London, says it is time media executives left their comfort zones and looked for alternative sources of income if they hope to stay in business.
“I think media executives are the problem. Digital platforms have changed media business. (Media executives) lack the knowledge and insight needed in these challenging times,” he says. “The truth is, I think there are only one or two media houses which will maintain their size in the future.”
Still, others are condemning the move by the government, saying it is meant to influence media decisions.
“The media is powerful and there is the desire by Jubilee to put it under check. This check comes in by way of controlling the supply line, which is the revenue stream provided by the government,” says Ibrahim Oruko, a media practitioner in Kenya.
However, he blames media owners too for the woes bedeviling the industry. He says journalists are poorly paid even though they have to undertake some of the most dangerous assignments. This makes them vulnerable to politicians and others with financial muscle.
Oruko, a former political reporter with the Star, says newspapers are all too willing to “kill stories that are contrary to their political godfathers and captains of industry.”
He adds that if media houses are to remain afloat, they must explore other innovative ways of survival. He says newspapers have a very bright future in Africa, adding that the influence of social media is not as huge as it is being hyped.
“Yes, the challenge is there, but we have not reached a point where the newspaper will be negated by blogs and other social media platforms,” says Oruko. “In Africa, the contrary is the case. Penetration (of internet) is low, the cost is high and limited to urban areas. It means the newspaper still has a niche.”
But some media bosses aren’t convinced. Radio Africa Group CEO Patrick Quarcoo, in announcing staff cuts and “operational efficiency measures” last month highlighted, “The future is digital and our focus will be on the monetisation of our digital assets and strategy.”
This comes after an earlier restructuring a year ago in which Radio Africa Group converged all its content operations to create a single newsroom for The Star, radios, digital and TV. The next phase will involve the redirection of investments into the digital space and the launch of a number of new digital products, including online radio stations and “innovative music offerings,” according The Star newspaper, which itself is part of Radio Africa Group.
For journalist Olewe, media houses should understand their audiences and do journalism that is relevant to people’s lives if they hope to remain relevant. Oruko agrees with Olewe and says that the print media will only survive if it remains faithful to its traditional role of being the voice of the society, rather than a tool of misinformation by the dominant class.
“There is a future for the newspaper in Kenya, but only if they remain true to their social obligations,” says Oruko.