The digital revolution and the fight for journalism

One of the great joys of my annual trip to London as a judge of the CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the year awards, is to catch up on journalism in a capital where it is practiced in its finest form, and to be privileged enough to read the cream of the work from our entire continent.

London is the ground zero of newspapers — emphasised by the acres of space given to the coverage of the broadband revolution and what it means for the press, and therefore democracy. I realised this one night while eating at a Thai restaurant.

Having dinner with my nephew and niece, Samina had her thumbs on her iPhone, “checking in”, she said. She was checking in to FourSquare, a networking site that allows you to plot your whereabouts into a map and to build a set of listings for you and your network. The beginning of the end for the legendary Time-Out magazine, I thought.

Clearly besotted with her phone, she began to show me her apps: one to help find the nearest tube if you pointed it in the direction you were walking in, then the Guardian’s app, which allowed her to enter the subjects she was interested in – Pakistan (where her family is from), South Africa, new media (which she works in) and a couple of others. This created a personalised feed for her – her own “newspaper” in my parlance. Surely, I thought, the end of print – it was just so superior to the purchase of newspapers and so much cheaper.

Samina had paid a once-off fee of £2 for the app, forever, for free. I had paid £2.90 for that day’s edition. If I lived in the UK, I’m sure that I would have traded my newspaper habit for a screen of applications that gave me the same reading pleasure, but in an edited form.

The end of print is surely nigh and it should worry us none for information, as reading pleasure is being created in new forms, and in richer and more selective ways. But the future of journalism should worry us somewhat. A once-off fee for an application is not the same as a committed reader buying a paper every day attracting advertisers who want her eyeballs.

To use an analogy, Samina is a window-shopper, while I am a shopper in the newspaper world. When I pointed this out to my next generation and told them about Rupert Murdoch’s decision earlier this year to erect paywalls around the Times, the Sunday Times and later the Sun and News of the World, they were clear that they wouldn’t pay for the privilege of reading journalism online.

There’s too much that’s free and Generation 2.0 will skip to the next best free thing. And that is journalism’s conundrum – who will pay for the snoopers who keep investigative journalism alive; who will fund the long, hard and expensive work of keeping teams at parliaments to hold the flame of democracy burning bright; who will pay people to read books and review them for our pleasure; who will pay the arts editors so we have informed commentary on culture rather than the blogs that are so often based first on the reportage of old-style journalism?

Nobody knows. As journalists, we live in revolutionary times and not knowing is part of the challenge that will make us innovate to protect our craft.

There are fine examples around the world and locally of how to do it: The Daily Maverick (wrenched from the ashes of its print magazine) who fund their work on love, fresh air and commitment; and philanthropically-funded investigations teams are two local versions. I think that journalism on any platform will, over time, become a non-profit enterprise which is perhaps what it should be. The Guardian, after all, is very successfully run as a trust, but it is also laying off people as its expansive foray into digital journalism has earned it millions of new readers, but revenues which do not yet come close to paying for the outlay.

Back in the judging room, it’s clear that African journalism is hitting its stride assisted by the liberalisation of media ownership across print, radio and television.

It is vibrant, assertive, frontier journalism that is finding an exciting voice. In Nigeria, Next is an experiment worth watching in one of the globe’s more interesting (and most challenging) nations. Next, published by Pulitzer prize-winning editor Dele Olojede, started as an online site and then migrated into a daily and Sunday newspaper. Its journalism is excellent and is beginning to attract advertising.

K24 and KTN are two new television channels in Kenya producing high quality work. But except for Next, the Daily Dispatch in East London as well as M&G Online, few media are shaping for the coming revolution. Almost blind to it, we are not using the space that our anaemic bandwith provides to study what’s happened in the world and to find solutions to protect journalism before the explosion of fast, free and cheap information.

Once broadband gets here properly, its take-up is likely to grow by four times every year and perhaps even faster if the recent history of mobile phones in Africa provides a guide. The world I envisage is one where the consumption of newspapers becomes a niched pursuit. Like a good revolutionary, I want to be a part of this fighting to protect the fourth estate.

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