Newsrooms can not be stagnant. That goes for the journalists that fill them, as well.
During the two-day INMA Africa News Summit, sponsored by the Google News Initiative, executives from Monitor Publications in Uganda and Business Day in Nigeria shared how they are attracting and keeping good journalists as their media companies, as well as keeping those journalists trained for the digital transformation. The virtual summit will continue on Friday.
Monitor Publications focuses on keeping journalistic talent
Acquiring and retaining talent is a challenge for newsrooms around the world, and it’s one that Daniel Kalinaki, executive editor of Monitor Publications in Uganda, is contending with. Getting good, experienced journalists has been a problem for the publication, and Kalinaki shared with summit attendees some of the steps companies can make to attract qualified talent.
“I can’t claim to have an answer to the problem,” he said, “but I can have a discussion about what we’ve seen in Uganda.”
He said the “people problem” in newsrooms is nothing new; historically it has been a low-paying industry. That’s particularly true in Uganda, where newspapers were state-run and the journalists were low-paid civil servants. As that changed in the early 1990s, the demand for communication professionals increased, but there weren’t always qualified individuals to fill the positions.
“So you got a glut of people who weren’t always the best qualified or the smartest, but they just had to fill the airwaves.”
And although it also brought in some talented, intelligent employees, the low pay made retention difficult. That led to an exodus of talent from the newsroom by around 2000, as they went into careers that offered better pay.
“It’s always been a pretty tough job,” Kalinaki said. “Long hours, very stressful depending on which country you’re in — the levels of repression, arrests, torture, killings in some places. So as people got families, they began weighing the risk.”
Some of the other factors that are influencing journalists’ decisions today include:
- Salaries not keeping pace with other industries.
- Social media has taken the “glory” of breaking news stories: “Walking into the pub in the evening and being the guy that knows what’s happening has kind of lost its allure,” Kalinaki said.
- In some countries, the risks are high for journalists, but the rewards are low, causing young workers to choose other careers that are safer and will pay better.
- There are other ways for talented journalists to make a living elsewhere, such as in NGO communications.
- The time spent away from the office during the pandemic made people realise there were other things they wanted to do with their lives.
- Newsrooms, in an effort to modernise, got rid of older, more expensive talent and replaced them with new, tech-savvy workers — who don’t necessarily have the sources or institutional knowledge required for the job.
Keeping journalists happy
Kalinaki addressed several ways to improve the situation by providing journalists with better working conditions. One big area where newsrooms can help journalists is by allowing remote work: “I have journalists whose commute is two hours — one way,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. In my mind, if you can get the work done wherever you are, do it there. Just make sure you’re present and the quality does not suffer.”
Offering things like mentorships and providing training on subjects such as finances and work/life balance also are helpful, he said: “There is a hunger for non-technical subjects. People want to know how to break addictions and all sorts of things they don’t learn in school. We need to think about how to give that assistance when it’s required.”
Another factor is the incentives companies offer. Many media companies used to (and some still do) offer mortgage programmes, but in the minds of a younger generation, that model is outdated: “We’re seeing … many of them will never own cars. They don’t want to own houses, they’re not going to get locked into a mortgage. So the incentive structure design … no longer applies to the younger generation.”
Things to consider
These realities create difficult questions Kalinaki presently doesn’t have answers for. Those questions include how to find a way to pay journalists a decent wage. In many cases, TV anchors have a day job but come in and do their news jobs at the end of their day shift.
Kalinaki said it could be worthwhile to bring veteran journalists back into newsrooms: “Right now, we see every election being brought back in for important topics. I think we’re going to have to find a way to use them, not just every five years for elections.” Accepting that these older journalists won’t have the same digital skills as younger workers, but that they bring value, is something newsrooms should consider, he added.
News media companies must make people understand that journalism is worth paying for, Kalinaki said: “Our struggle to make people pay for content, I think, comes from the fact that we took it for granted. We have to make people see that if you do not have vibrant media houses that can hold power accountable, then the democracy will die in darkness.”
How Business Day manages change in the newsroom and newsroom culture
Newsroom culture hasn’t always been talked about in journalism school. As all industries grow, it’s become an important topic for everyone hoping to keep good talent, increase revenues, and publish amazing content.
At Business Day in Nigeria, culture is part of the culture — as is innovation.
“I think that is what has happened to newspapers around the world in the age of digitalisation,” Frank Aigbogun, CEO and publisher at Business Day, told attendees. “And given the very competitive nature of the business today, the need to focus on innovating in different aspects of the business is so important.”
Innovation at Business Day looks a lot like migrating from an ad revenue model to a reader revenue model.
“That’s how we started pushing the change at Business Day to create that connection between our journalism and the financial or commercial sustainability of the business,” Aigbogun said.
Business Day wanted and needed to make journalists understand this change was deliberate to improve the quality of the journalism and sustainability of the business.
BusinessDay first had to understand who was interacting with them. They knew Nigeria has a young audience:
They also found most of their audience was interacting with them online, more specifically on mobile:
87% of the population has cell phones.
Nigeria has 99 million Internet users, which is the highest in Africa and 10th in the world.
53% of the population browses on mobile.
“Essentially we needed at first to have a good understanding of the kind of audience or the kind of population that we are serving to drive that change in culture, to drive that change in mindset among journalists,” Aigbogun said.
To create a digital first newsroom, they focused on being fast, agile and reader-centric.
“We needed to create a newsroom capable of creating that connection to the reader,” Aigbogun said.
They also had to break free from the idea that there was a single deadline each day. Instead, operating under a 24-hour news cycle.
“It wasn’t easy breaking that old habit,” Aigbogun said.
To truly become a data-driven newsroom, Business Day had to make some staffing changes. They hired a newsroom leader who had experience creating journalism for a paying audience.
“If you were serving a paying audience, you needed to know whether people were actually paying and how many people were paying, how many were reading your stories,” Aigbogun said. “It became very important for our journalists to ask themselves constantly, ‘Is anyone reading my story?’”
Business Day says had to move a lot of people around in a constant experiment to be the most effective, Aigbogun said: “We tend to shake up the newsroom quite often once we believe we aren’t getting the right results. We are not adverse to changing the newsroom, moving people around as quickly as we can.”
They didn’t just cycle the same people to different departments, Aigbogun said. He realised they were going to have to coach some people out of the newsroom who weren’t capable of thriving in the new environment.
“We then began to look at how to bring in young people who are not stuck in the old way of doing things and that led us to begin a graduate trainee programme,” Aigbogun said.
Aigbogun admitted having the youngest newsroom in Nigeria does have its drawbacks. They have to start training from scratch and recognise a lot of people won't last. So they have to be proactive and productive in getting people into the programme who have staying power so they can build the right team with the discipline to execute their strategy.
“It’s not enough to talk about this but better if we are able to walk our talk,” Aigbogun said.
Business Day didn’t totally abandon its roots in its quest to go digital. Traditional newspapers do still offer them opportunities for ad revenue.
“You need the advertiser revenues to make the investment in growing your digital platforms,” Aigbogun said.“When we started, our focus was on the traditional newspaper and some of the content we got we put online. Today, our focus is on our digital content, and we now have a small team that takes what we are producing for our readers online and makes it better suited for the traditional newspaper.”
Today, the Business Day newsroom is capable of producing podcasts, videos, and animated stories.
“It’s all about telling stories better and telling better stories,” Aigbogun said.
Business Day believes it’s their journalists’ duty to get people coming, get people staying, and get people paying. They also encourage their newsroom, like many others, to collaborate to take on ambitious reporting projects. Aigbogun wants newsrooms not to ask how to charge people for content but instead ask: “Do we have something worth paying for?”
Complete coverage of the two-day summit can be found here.