Last week, the media fraternity in Rwanda held a big event they dubbed national dialogue on media development. They met to talk about many issues, but the media as business featured prominently. They talked. Many listened. Many more did not hear.
East Africa’s leading media practitioners and owners of media houses were present. They had been invited for their long experience in the business, both as a profession and a business. Rwandan journalists hoped to learn from them. The experts duly obliged, offering advice on how the media in this country can develop. The advice was not universally accepted or even agreed upon as helpful; nor should it have been.
One view was that Rwandan media should develop as a national institution, with its own character that derives from the specific circumstances of the country. As such it should not imitate or follow the dictates of media from elsewhere.
Good advice, too, seeing as most of the so-called independent local media has its eyes firmly fixed on the outside. One often hears pleas in their voices, usually accompanied by made-up stories, to some external powers that will deliver them from what they call their misery.
They would not do this if they listened to President Paul Kagame. He is an untiring advocate of searching for home-grown approaches to national issues. Apparently some of our scribes think this only applies to those in government.
The second advice was on investment. One position was that the local media should look to investment from within the country before inviting foreign investors.
A different position was that there was nothing wrong with seeking external investments to help develop local media.
It does not matter one way or the other. On one thing they all agreed, however – that investment is needed. The difference, perhaps, lies in the attitude to media as business.
Investment is a business decision based on several factors. People put their money into a business because a market exists for their product, there is reasonable infrastructure and enabling legislation, and above all because they expect good returns on their investment.
Many of these conditions obtain in Rwanda, but have not been fully exploited, and that might be the reason external investors are not exactly falling over each other to enter the local market. Foreign investors will come into a market that is attractive and reasonably developed.
They would not, for instance, rush into a market with no skilled human resource. The cost of training people to the required skills standards is often a disincentive to invest. From this perspective, the argument that local investors must take the lead is very attractive.
The problem with the Rwandan private media, however, is that most of them entered the market without a business plan, or at any rate seem not to have taken the business angle seriously. They did not invest enough in the business.
That is one of the reasons a good number of them are getting into trouble with the Media High Council on its insistence on levels of capitalisation.
Listening to the owners of the private media in Rwanda, one gets to understand that they premised their business plans on getting advertisements from the government, which remains the biggest advertiser. I think this is where they get it wrong.
Advertising is also a business decision. Organisations advertise for several reasons. They want to get their product to the market. They target consumers who are interested in and have the means to consume their product.
They also want to get their product to as much a wide market as possible. Advertisers will therefore select media that will best serve this purpose.
Now, most of our private media do not meet this advertising requirement. The circulation of the newspapers does not exceed one hundred. Their readers cannot afford a copy of the paper (a copy is often shared by several readers). In any case most of them are interested in sensational stories, which is the main fare the majority of the private media serve.
Would it make sense, for instance, to advertise an international tender for the supply of earth-moving equipment, or senior executive posts in an international organisation in such media?
Government does not give money to owners of grocery stores. And for the same reason, it should do so for private media.
As is their wont, many journalists found ways of turning the discussion from investment to some cherished concerns as press freedom and the repeal of laws like libel which they say make their work difficult.
The bigger concern, in my humble opinion, should have had more to do with three aspects of their profession. First, they should be more concerned with refining their news gathering, reporting, editing and presentation skills. Second, they should pay attention to the ethics of the profession. Finally, should pay attention to the business side of their job and make their product (news) attractive to consumers and advertisers. Take care of these and your worries about most things will be considerably reduced.
And, oh, the high priests of press freedom – Reporters without Borders - were invited to the media dialogue, but did not show up. They deprived of (or spared) us sermons on these vaunted freedoms. It would not surprise many if in their next report they attributed their refusal to attend the conference to the absence of freedom of expression in Rwanda.