Focus on audiences is helping African news media emerge from difficult history

By Jessica Spiegel


Portland, Oregon, United States


Setting the stage for INMA’s recent two-day Africa News Media Summit, Afripedia publisher and writer Charles Onyango-Obbo began his keynote address on the state of the news media business in Africa by acknowledging the challenges African media businesses have been facing in recent years.

“I cannot overstate how difficult it has been,” he said, as some of the leading titles on the continent have shrunk by 75%. Still, he is “a believer that the future can be won.”

To understand why news media businesses in Africa have been struggling, Onyango-Obbo said it’s important to look back on what he dubbed “The Burden of Our Origin Story.”

Charles Onyango-Obbo, publisher and writer at Uganda's Afripedia, shared the bright spots of optimism among African news media.
Charles Onyango-Obbo, publisher and writer at Uganda's Afripedia, shared the bright spots of optimism among African news media.

“The best of legacy African media was born in dictatorship,” he said. As governments transition from dictatorship to democracy, semi-democracy, or elected dictatorships, media businesses have not adjusted to those transitions and what they meant for news media consumers.

Unlike in a dictatorship, he explained, “if a party comes to power with 51% of the vote, any criticism against that party essentially becomes an attack on, potentially, 51% of your market. It took us a while to understand that. We kept doing what we had been doing during dictatorships, and we lost audiences” as a result.

Some notable successes have come about by pure accident, Onyango-Obbo admitted, though they’ve been able to understand in retrospect what made some viral stories so popular.

“The most boring story”

One of these accidental hits was a story in the Mail & Guardian Africa about how, since Africa was the first settled continent, its soil has been used the most for farming. At the time, he said, “I thought it was the most boring story I had ever edited,” but it went on to become “one of the most viral stories in Africa in 2015,” remaining in the top 10 most read stories on the site for a year.

In trying to work out why this story was such an unexpected success, Onyango-Obbo said they realised “Africa had had its longest period ever of relative peace,” which had produced, for the first time, “the largest number of Africans dying peacefully in their bed, passing on businesses, land, and property to their children.”

This meant that there was a “huge cohort of young Africans taking over family farms for the first time, so there was huge demand for understanding resources,” including soil management.

If news media publishers had understood the implications for an unprecedented period of relative peace, Onyango-Obbo said, they might have been able to predict demand like this in advance.

What women want

Another accidental success came from Kenya’s Daily Nation. In an effort to increase female readership, the publisher introduced a fashion and lifestyle insert, “Saturday Magazine.” It was very successful, and after about a year, they conducted a survey to find out what readers liked about it.

“Fashion and lifestyle were not the primary reasons women liked the magazine,” Onyango-Obbo said. “Most bought it because of one column at the back about financial advice.” This “upended the Nation’s old thinking about ‘what women want.’”

Again, doing some retrospective analysis, Onyango-Obbo thinks the miscalculation about what a female reader wanted came from a fundamental misunderstanding of womens’ changing roles, positions, and needs in society — the dynamics of which were covered in the stories women really wanted to read.

When being “authoritative” breeds resentment

One of the lessons in journalism school is “the magic is what they call ‘authoritative media,’” Onyango-Obbo said. But being authoritative no longer seemed to be working for African media businesses, and Onyango-Obbo thinks one of the main reasons for this was a change in who leads African households.

"Authoritative" journalism no longer works on the continent.
"Authoritative" journalism no longer works on the continent.

Statistics across the continent show an increasing number of households led by single mothers. In Kenya, he said, the latest data shows an average of about 36% children in rural areas and 31% in urban areas living with single mothers aged 20-49 — and there are some countries, as well as cities in Kenya, where that number is closer to 65%-70%.

This matters for journalism, Onyango-Obbo explained, because “households run by a single mother are very different from traditional, male-led households in Africa. They’re basically more democratic, more cooperative, less authoritarian. The architecture of authority is very different.”

As the children from these households grow into adults, they become new members of the professional class who are potential readers. But, publishers learned, there was “some deep resentment in groups of young Africans because the tone of the media was ‘authoritarian.’ It was antithetical to the environment in which they had been raised.”

Pathways to the future

Even with the challenges, Onyango-Obbo is “very optimistic about a Renaissance in African media.”

One path he sees to the future involves learning from people who have been successful in the space. The BBC, for instance, has increased its reach substantially with BBC News in Africa. In fact, their West African Pidgin service saw more growth year over year than any BBC media product in the world.

The BBC is a good example of how readership on the continent is growing.
The BBC is a good example of how readership on the continent is growing.

Some years ago, a publication in a Kenyan pidgin language “had an online readership that was larger than Nation Media Group’s,” he said. It was an audience that reflected Kenya’s growing urbanisation, an increasingly youthful and cosmopolitan population. The BBC noticed this success and recognised it as an opportunity.

Onyango-Obbo also pointed out the news media landscape in Africa is a “diverse picture dotted with bright spots,” including exciting developments in newsletters, upmarket publications, and online markets. He emphasised that, with these kinds of products, it’s important to “not focus on just technology itself,” but to “better understand the audiences we have.”

News publishers have been successful in these areas because, he said, they’re “beginning to read their communities correctly,” which “creates opportunities for change and success.”

About Jessica Spiegel

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