Experts: Digital era least of African media worries

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Kayumba said uptake of digital technology is not the main concern though it exacerbates the challenges faced by local traditional media. (Timothy Kisambira)

The digital era and uptake of digital technologies has of late given sleepless nights to a section of media stakeholders, afraid that it will hurt their profitability and relevance.

Across the region, stakeholders in the sector have expressed concern of what rapid digital uptake could spell for media enterprises in regards to profitability, relevance and regulation, among other issues.

The Rwanda Governance Board, one of the organisers of Tuesday’s Rwanda Media Dialogue, said the digital era had profoundly affected the profitability and impact of the media.

The agency warned that more impact is likely to be felt.

However, experts say that the local media face far-reaching challenges of which digital advent is of much lesser magnitude. Among the challenges they cited as bigger include skillset, professionalism, business models and relevance here.

Before addressing these challenges, they noted, it would be blinding to overemphasise the impact of the digital era.

For instance, some argued that even the media houses that have wrapped up operations in the country, including a television and radio station, few can cite the digital era as the main cause.

Christopher Kayumba, a journalism lecturer at University of Rwanda, said uptake of digital technology is not the main concern though it exacerbates the situation.

“I do not believe that the digital age is the main challenge today. Our media has traditionally been making losses. Digital era is only exacerbating, making a bad situation worse,” he said.

Among the aspects he said were pressing was the skillset of the practitioners, which he said are a result of the higher education curriculum.

This, Kayumba said, can be addressed through hands-on training and in-house training of practitioners.

“The quality of education is still low; I have been in the sector for the last 15 years, especially in regards to a hands-on practical curriculum and skills and hands-on job training. The problem in some media houses is that they want finished products without investing in their labour force, we also lack role models in the sector,” he said.

‘Low internet penetration’

Yann Gwett, another journalism lecturer at University of Rwanda, also challenged the line of thought, saying the preconditions for digital takeover were not yet in place.

He cited internet penetration and adoption, saying it was still low compared to developed countries.

“I challenge the idea that Africa should actually invest and benefit from the digital age. If you look at the digital numbers, for instance, internet penetration is still low, about 31 per cent, compared to the Western world where it is over 55 per cent.

Even that figure of 31 per cent, we have many disparities where some countries have higher while some have as low as 5 per cent. Without bridging that gap, we cannot seriously talk about entering the digital age,” Gwett said.

With a majority of citizens still living in rural areas, Gwett noted that digital era is yet to be the sector’s biggest headache.

“We are in 2017 and still have two thirds of the population who live in rural areas, in terms of being able to expand, we need to be able to reach this people who are in rural areas. Most do not have access to internet,” he explained.

Profitability and business sense probably features as the top challenge facing the sector.

On this, stakeholders said that it is necessary for government to invest in outlets that reach out to a majority of citizens to ensure that their survival is not threatened as well as merger of smaller profit driven media outlets.

“These are areas where the Government should strongly invest. Models working elsewhere may not work here because of the economy, the population is small and people’s capacity to pay for content is still low,” Kayumba said.

He encouraged the merger and pooling of resources of smaller outlets to improve impact and profits.

Gaspard Safari, the director of Rwanda Printing and Publishing Company, the publishers of Imvaho Nshya, a Kinyarwanda daily, cautioned on not taking the digital era too seriously, saying impacts are likely to be more evident in the coming years.

He said rather than look at it as a replacement of traditional media,   people ought to look at it as an opportunity to grow their reach.

“It is not a replacement to traditional media in Africa. It actually presents an opportunity to the media to reach more people. We should, however, be cognizant of the fact that, five or 10 years from now, there will be big impact. It would be good to ready ourselves. It does not hurt to take advantage of both avenues,” Safari said.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw