Understanding business dynamics of today’s journalism ― Ogwezzy-Ndisika [SPEECH]

Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika, business
Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika

I am excited at this kind of invitation to deliver the keynote at the 2019 edition of the Biennial Convention of the Nigerian Guild of Editors. I do not take this opportunity for granted. On this note, I commend the efforts of the leadership of the Guild in ensuring that leaders in the media industry in the country gather specifically to address concerns of the profession, set the agenda for the industry, as well as contribute towards the growth and development of our great nation, Nigeria.

Most important, I am delighted about the theme for this edition of the Convention: “Media Convergence as a strategy for survival”. No doubt, this theme embodies a whole lot of truth. Definitely, it is a clarion call for stakeholders in the media industry, hence, the title of my address becomes relevant. There is a need to tell the naked truth about the media industry. The era of living in self-denial is over and media stakeholders must begin to embrace the objective reality even as we brace up to make the best out of it.

I make bold to say that media convergence will not only keep the media surviving; it also has the potential to make the media industry thrive beyond all reasonable doubts. In Nigeria, most media houses are yet to understand this truth, hence the retrenchment of staff, poor remuneration, shallow content production as well as failure to perform its watchdog function. It is important to note that surviving media houses today are those that have found a way of ensuring that they get acquainted with the latest trends and remodelled their strategy towards making the best out of these trends.

With seven months left to hitting the 160-year-mark since the inception of Iwe Irohin fun awon Egba ati Yoruba in Abeokuta by Rev. Henry Townsend, of the Church Missionary Society, the Nigerian media industry has come of age for a new course to be set. Therefore, this keynote seeks to set the tone for that new course as well as guide the discussion during this convention. It is important to note that the topic of media convergence is not a buzzword but it’s our present day reality. Hence, there is need to stimulate conversation in this area as well as get started on making it happen in our different media establishments and in the industry in general.

First, what do we mean by media convergence?
The word convergence is synonymous with words such as intersectional, interplay and hybridity. We conceptually mean that through convergence, the media space with the advancement in technology, culture and economy continually alters the relationship between media consumers and producers. In this day and age, former consumers (fan community, readership base, followers of news) have become powerful to the extent that they are fellow purveyors of information. Much more, these fellow producers have become participants in this media space. This practice is what Yochai Benkler, a professor of entrepreneurial studies at Harvard Law School defines as a ‘hybrid of media ecology’ in his 2006 seminal work titled: The Wealth of Networks.

To help us unpack this term better, two reputable scholars in media convergence culture field: Henry Jenkins, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennslyvania, USA and Mark Deuze, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in an editorial written in the 2008 edition of Convergence Culture Journal defines convergence as a:

…top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-driven process. Media companies are learning how to accelerate the flow of media content across delivery channels to expand revenue opportunities, broaden markets and reinforce consumer loyalties and commitments. Users are learning how to master these different media technologies to bring the flow of media more fully under their control and to interact (and co-create) with other users.

From Jenkins and Deuze’s explanation, the convergence culture puts media companies in the position to continually learn and update their capacity to navigate this large body of delivery channels provided by the advancement of technology to reach its audience, make money and retain market leadership.

On the other hand, the media consumers (now producers and participants), are as well trying to understand the intricacies of being bombarded with several alluring media technologies all fighting for attention. This continuous battle is all thanks to the activities of platform capitalists such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Netflix, Youtube, LinkedIn, Amazon and the likes. These companies are altering the journalism business. In fact, they continue to reposition to ensure that every member of its community need not leave its platform to do anything. From the reading of books, to consuming of news to even purchasing of household appliances, these platform capitalists are taking up the attention of the media industry’s target audience. Much more, digital advertising is the order of the day. Google alone accounts for 31.1 per cent of the total global advertising spending followed by Facebook, Alibaba and Amazon respectively (eMarketer, 2019).

In terms of engagement as at May 3, 2019, Alexa ‘The Top 500 sites on the web’ ranked Google as the first website globally. Followed closely are Youtube, Facebook, Baidu, Wikipedia, Yahoo (9th), Amazon (10th) and Twitter (11th).

In Nigeria, Google ranks number one. The others among the top five include Bet9ja, Youtube, Facebook, Yahoo. In fact, Nairaland (11th), a discussion forum where Nigerians converge, debate and share content ranks higher than any media company platform in the country (Punch Online ranks 12th on the ranking). This day’s technology continues to dwarf the practice of inflation of circulation figures to attract advertising. The advertisers now know the way and will continually go through a route proven with real numbers.

In other words, the rise of emergent new media should be a reason for media practitioners to strategise on how to be relevant. The world is digital. According to the 10th edition of the Measuring the Information Society Report, published by International Telecommunications Union in December 2018, it was noted that 51 per cent of the world’s population (3.9 billion) are using the Internet. Of all the continents, Africa recorded the largest growth rate. From 2.1 per cent of Internet users in 2005, ITU, a United Nations ICT agency based in Geneva, Switzerland noted that Africa has 24.4 per cent of Internet users as of 2018. Indeed, this shows the import of Internet access and usage. With this increase, there is no gainsaying that the practice of journalism has evolved, is evolving and will continue to evolve. With this surge, African media companies have no excuse, not to be intentional about ensuring optimum use of this advantage in repositioning its editorial and business models to remain relevant and profitable. In today’s hyper-connected ecology, many are always caught in the web of looking down at their gadgets, gleaning numerous tons of information than even paying attention to the neighbour sitting next to them. Digital natives are upwardly-mobile and can only be targeted with the digital mindset. Hence, journalists must leave the filter bubble they have built around themselves and be willing to evolve. There is a need to understand the operation of these platform capitalists who have become digital intermediaries between publishers and their target audience. This is the naked truth.

Journalism in the Era of Digital Intermediaries
The truth be told: the sea of companies camping at Silicon Valley is gaining mastery of the audience we once had at our fingertips. They have unique audience profiles and can alter algorithms for their own specific needs. As a profession believed to be Anglo-American, this is an on-going concern for media industries across the globe. As such, there is need for media houses to be circumspect of the workings of these technologies and so should be proactive to seek for new ways of creating tools to engage the audience.

In a study conducted in 2017 on Dealing with Digital Intermediaries by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Sarah Anne Ganter of the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, it was observed that media houses were reactionary in their approach to the rising dominance of digital intermediaries. Hence, there is need for media houses to take the initiative, be proactive, collaborate and develop media products. There is also the need for newsrooms to gravitate towards improving its technology base for times ahead. Some argue that, with the interplay between journalism and technology, it is likely that a computer will win the Pulitzer Award very soon.

Big media corporations like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, are continually strategising and repositioning for the next level in journalism practice. In a report released by its President and Chief Executive Officer, Mark Thompson in March, ‘The New York Times’ digital revenue currently stands at $709 million (about 256 billion naira). This implies that within three years of its five-year digital revenue target of $800 million by 2020, it has grossed 87 per cent of its target. Apparently, they are bound to surpass their target before its expiration next year. This is impressive and they are not resting on their oars. Furthermore, within 2018, they added 716,000 new digital subscriptions taking their total paid digital subscriptions to 4.3 million. Additionally, the company launched The Daily, a news and opinion podcast in 2017 and broadcasts twenty minutes a day and five days a week. In 2018, its ‘smash-hit podcast’ episode on the ‘Blasey-Kavanaugh Hearing’ (a hearing which saw the accusation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for ‘grave sexual misconduct’ by Christine Blasely Ford) became Apple’s most downloaded podcast. To sum up, NYT’s convergence culture is summed up by Thompson as thus:

“…we’re not letting up on exploring new ways of telling the most important stories of the day and meeting the needs of our audience in every form, from the written word to visual to audio to television to streaming.

With its progressive nature, Thompson, a former Director-General of the BBC, (U.K) also announced NYT’s commencement of a new television programme by next month (June 2019) known as “The Weekly”. Hence, the media company has resisted the notion that journalism must be statistic and maintain the status quo.

At this juncture, it is also important to draw from lessons of the convergence culture in European newsrooms. From studies conducted recently, it is observed that newsrooms in Europe are embracing the convergence culture. Most especially, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom are at the fore of convergence culture. In other parts of Europe, the convergence culture is growing. In a study conducted by a team of researchers in 2018 within newsrooms across Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, and Portugal, it was observed that:

‘…that a shift from print to convergence culture is occurring… a hybrid newsroom culture is developing that increasingly incorporates convergence; that said, newsrooms have to be able to translate convergence from the strategic level to applicable procedures and policies within their editorial departments.

Asides from the digital wave hitting the newsrooms in US and Europe, worthy of note is the remarkable strides recorded by De Correspondent of The Netherlands led by Rob Wijinberg and Ernst Pfauth. Through a crowdfunding business model, it raised $2.6 million from 45, 888 founding members from 130 countries (including Nigeria) by December 15, 2018, to kick start its English version. This success was achieved through the pooling of resources from across the globe. Now, with the funds realised, they are set to begin publishing of what they call ‘unbreaking news’ by September 2019. This model is also recommendable. With this model, The Correspondent intends to run an ad-free kind of journalism, to click-bait and targeting, fighting stereotypes, solution journalism and collaborating with its ‘knowledgeable’ members.

In fact, with this advancement in models and designs, new titles are emerging in the newsrooms. This shows how creativity brings about new dimensions to the profession, new job portfolios and leads to a robust and sustainable business model. In the digital news project conducted by Nic Newman titled: Journalism, Media, and Technology Trends and Predictions 2019, the 200 journalists interviewed across 29 countries (including Kenya) had titles such as Chief Data Officer; Chief Marketing Officer; Head, Audience Engagement; Head of Development/Innovation; Director of Strategy; Head of Multimedia; Director of Product, among others.

It is important to highlight here that despite the innovations and tweaking of practice to fit the digital age, traditional journalistic values must be upheld. Value must not be sacrificed on the altar of innovation and search for new and sustainable business models. According to Thompson of NYT:

…the Company’s commitment to investing in journalism and upholding traditional journalistic values and our continuing focus on sweeping digital innovation has helped us create a sustainable business model for news. Today, ‘The New York Times’ is a leading global news provider and among the world’s most successful news subscription businesses.

The Nigerian Media and the Convergence Culture
While the developed nations continue to shift from the previous mode of practising journalism to a flexible, upwardly-mobile and innovative mode, we must not be left behind. With the reach, in terms of digital penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa, in general, and Nigeria in particular, media convergence remains a viable option in remaining relevant. I must commend the efforts of newsrooms in Nigeria already going digital and embracing the convergence culture. The Guardian (Nigeria) has just restructured and created a separate Digital Company from the Newspaper Publishing Company. This is part of business dynamics that NYT’s Thompson has been teaching. Ask for the details from the company.

Also, I commend the efforts of Channels Television in engaging a multi-dimensional technology known as the Channels Visual Interface in the reportage of the just concluded 2019 general elections in the country. Through this technology, reporters were beamed live from different studios in real-time to discuss issues relating to the election. This is a welcome development.

Another example of innovation I noticed during the election coverage was the opening of the VanguardLIVE hub in Lagos by Vanguard Media in collaboration with Journalism Clinic, It is imperative for more newsrooms to gravitate towards embracing technology. It is a sure tool in restructuring and meeting with current trends and realities worldwide. Much more, some newspaper companies like The Punch, The Nation, The Guardian and Vanguard among others are beginning to make some entry into online broadcasting. This is a welcome idea and there is always room for improvement. Like Henry Jenkins mentioned in his seminal work on Convergence Culture in 2006, media companies must ‘renegotiate their relationship with their consumers’ in order to come out of the quagmire of surviving the onslaught of dwindling revenue and activities of the digital intermediaries.

I make bold to say that any journalist, or media manager who is unwilling to move with the current dispensation of the convergence culture train, is only bidding his time before journalism waves him off the coach. In a 2017 article titled: What newspapers must do to survive the new media onslaught by Lekan Otufodunrin, former Managing Editor, Online and Special Publications, The Nation newspaper, it was put succinctly that ‘days of old-school editors are numbered’. It cannot be said better than a former editor of a national newspaper who led a newspaper digital team. The earlier editors begin to understand the current realities and step up their game, the better. There are still some media practitioners that wave this trend and continue to rely on traditional means of news collection, production and dissemination. Anyone still in the cadre can only be living in a filter bubble waiting to burst.
Much more, there is a need for media houses to focus on instituting policies to guide the usage of these platforms. Drawing from big media corporations, social media policies play a major document for every journalist working under its fold. In 2017, NYT staff received a mail from its Executive Editor, Dean Baquet stating the following:
We believe that to remain the world’s best news organization, we have to maintain a vibrant presence on social media. But we also need to make sure that we are engaging responsibly on social media, in line with the values of our newsroom. That’s why we’re issuing updated and expanded social media guidelines…Please read them closely and take them to heart.

In as much as there is need for remodelling of newsroom practice, there is also the need to consider the policy aspect to ensure every journalist upholds brand integrity and dignity even on the digital street. The call to go digital is also a call to maintain couth, respect and integrity. The social media policy of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is striking. Its policy addresses three core areas of social media engagement …in fact it sums its policy as “Don’t do anything stupid”.

In Nigeria, I doubt if most media houses have instituted such policies. This is a call to consider instituting such policies to strengthen the media’s integrity. Beyond having the policy, there is need to put it to effective work. Taking a cursory look at how some Nigerian journalists engage on these digital platforms, there is a need to ensure the defining of boundaries. These boundaries also have a power to influence the survival strategy of the media industry.
Lest we forget, the strategy in this age should involve knowledge development of the managers too. As a mass communication teacher, I can tell you, we are disrupting our journalism curriculum to include management skills. This is what Martins Oloja, a columnist, former Editor of The Guardian and Executive Head of The Editorial Board of The Guardian told Heads of Departments of Mass Communication and Journalism of Universities and Polytechnics at the Bayero University, School of Communication in August last year in a seminal paper he delivered at the Quarterly lecture on ‘Data and investigative Journalism as a Tool for Fighting Corruption…’

Oloja noted in his conclusion:

..The suggestion about business education in journalism curriculum should not have been so germane if we managers of the newsroom have been familiar with some aspects of modern management studies including “organisational learning” or if we were familiar with the concept of “learning organisations” designed by some scholars for ‘dynamic capabilities’ of firms. We have been trained to report, write and analyse. We can do well in investigative reports, make and waste the money for lack of knowledge of how to manage finances. We are today fantastic reporters and editorialists. And as a result of our writing skills and efficiency in manipulating words we are always promoted from the newsroom to the boardroom but quite often without concomitant training in managing human resources of our organisations. The immediate effect of this gap is that the manager of the newsroom resorts to running newsroom operations & operatives by intuition…

What is in it for us here is that for us to benefit from this media convergence model, we need to learn some aspects of the business dynamics of the media at this time. This is what NYT’s Thompson was saying. Journalism education should go beyond writing skills now – so that we can fit into the Boardroom from the Newsroom with confidence. We need to learn, unlearn and relearn as Alvin Toffler, an American futurist, writer, businessman and digital revolution expert, has advised, in this regard. We need digital revolution education, now.

No one envisaged that a time will come when a president of the free world can speak to the world through a touch of the button on his phone while using the popular micro-blogging website, Twitter. Indeed, this was never predicted. Hence, the need for editors and managers to be innovative, proactive and dynamic in their approach. There is no end to learning. There is room for the learning of these tools as well as the inclusion of technology-savvy digital natives in handling how the Nigerian media works. Drawing from NYT’s model, there is always the need to uphold traditional news values without compromise. This distinguishes us from non-professionals marauding within the journalism field in our country.

In the main, I am confident that this convention will help in opening the vista of new ideas and refreshing strategies to take the media industry in the country to the next height it deserves. With the world now digital, any journalism model that seeks to strive and excel beyond bounds must consider the right way to harness digital elements for a greater good. From this convention, I look forward to seeing a Nigerian media industry repositioned to embrace the convergence culture with both arms. Beyond releasing of a communique and media reports about this convention, I propose a more holistic approach towards retooling our strategies and being innovative to remain relevant in this technologically-defined age.

Let the conversation continue.
Long live the Nigerian Guild of Editors,
Long live the Nigerian Media Industry,
Long live the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Being a keynote address delivered by Professor of Communication and Gender Studies at the University of Lagos, Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika, PhD, MNIPR, arpa, at the opening ceremony of the biennial convention of the Nigerian Guild of Editors held at Lagos Airport Hotel, Ikeja, Lagos on May 4th 2019.

Culled from Nigerian Guild of Editors