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Might take time but bold innovations guarantee survival of struggling media

Lion Place shook to its foundations with excitement in the closing weeks of last year. Word had gone around that Radio Africa Group had clinched a lucrative government tender to publish and distribute MyGov.

Radio Africa, Nation Media Group and the Standard Group have been publishing the government weekly but now it will be exclusively done by Lion Place.

Under the deal, Radio Africa will print and insert MyGov in The Star newspaper every Tuesday and distribute the paper to readers free of charge throughout the country.

It’s a lifeline for The Star, whose owners have in recent years repeatedly come quite close to folding the struggling publication.

“Change is in the air, and we are thrilled to announce the exciting transformations happening at The Star, Kenya’s best political newspaper,” the daily crowed in an editorial on Tuesday, January 9, when the first free paper hit the streets.

“We are increasing our circulation to more than 100,000 copies every Tuesday, ensuring that our valuable insights reach a wider audience and advertisers get value for their money,” the paper stated.

In a country – and world – where newspaper circulation is on a steady decline as news consumers prefer digital content, The Star just hit the jackpot.

Buoyant bosses told their staff that they aim to make the paper read by “smart people” Kenya’s biggest daily in two years.

While this is certainly great news for Lion Place, the media industry remains groping in the dark woods in the face of disruptions of the Digital Age.

As we have stated here previously, journalism itself as a profession is not in mortal danger of vanishing forever. People will still need the news from reliable sources they can trust. Democracy needs a fierce and sleepless watchdog to hold power to account. But what is definitely changing is how people consume the news and the implications of this for media houses as businesses.

Veteran journalist and Daily Nation columnist Macharia Gaitho put this point starkly: “The media in Kenya right now is facing an existential crisis. Newspaper circulation has shrunk in a big way, as have TV and radio audiences,” he said (The Star, January 4, p.14).                            

“There are fears within the industry that the media is dying, but that is not necessarily true. There are still enormous audiences for news, information, and entertainment. Still, a significant shift to new web-based platforms has disrupted the orthodox content production and dissemination methods.”

 Information, Communication and Digital Economy Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo told Citizen TV on January 6 that the media must respond strategically to the sweeping changes in the operational environment.

“I want the media to run away from this notion that it is the responsibility of the government to finance operations of the media by way of advertising revenue. The amount of money you people need as media houses is colossal compared to the money you are getting from government advertisement revenue,” he said.

“The operational environment is dynamic. You cannot continue doing your business the way you were doing business five, ten years ago. Today, a critical segment of you customer base or stakeholder market base has migrated to the digital space. You must correspondingly reinvent or re-engineer your operations to align to that.”

Owalo’s interviewer, news anchor Lilian Muli, had suggested that the government had cut advertising spending as a way of hitting back at the media.

“Let me tell you something: It’s not the business of government to finance the private sector. The role of government is to ensure that we have got an enabling policy, legal and regulatory framework for the private sector to thrive,” the CS said.

What can media houses do to thrive? That is the homework for the owners and their management teams. Attempts to monetise digital content through paywalls have clearly hit a brick wall. Not many readers are ready to pay, possibly because they are hard pressed by the high cost of living and, let us admit it, much of the content offered for pay is available elsewhere free of charge. It’s nothing compelling.

Weeks back the Nation Media Group announced its new virtual bookstore. Earlier, Radio Africa began revamping its events arm. Other strategic options for creating alternative revenue streams exist.

Content is still king. A new book published in December tackles the growing phenomenon of news avoidance. The authors of “Avoiding the News” observe that around the world “a significant number of people consistently avoid the news, and more broadly, news consumption is declining, interest in news is down, and more occasional selective news avoidance growing.”

How can media houses innovatively tackle these enormous challenges? Overcoming hardships is what unveils new horizons in human civilisation.

See you next week!

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