Training is key to overcoming the media talent gap in Africa

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, USA


By 2050, Africa will have the largest population of working age people in the world — even more than China or India — and Nigeria’s population will surpass that of the United States. Despite the growth, Africa faces significant challenges when it comes to the journalism talent pool, according to Peter Burdin, BBC Africa advisor and a champion for African business journalism in the UK.

Having lived and worked in Africa for many years, Burdin is aware of the challenges facing journalists and news media companies. One of the most significant hurdles to overcome is training, he said at the recent INMA Africa News Media Summit.

Pairing young journalists with veterans is one way to improve training.
Pairing young journalists with veterans is one way to improve training.

“How do we transform the African editorial narrative to find and empower the young journalists who are going to deliver quality journalism? We need to re-examine our recruitment practices [and] look at how we recruit these quality journalists.”

A shallow talent pool among journalists is a common complaint he hears. Burdin looked at how the African news media industry can improve its recruitment techniques.

“We’ve really undergone a revolution in just the last few years on how we report on Africa, but we need to solidify that and really move into this new territory to … transform how we portray Africa to our audiences and readers,” he said.

Doing that requires retooling the current methods of recruiting and training.

“We’ve already entered the era of digital journalism, which our audiences are demanding of us,” he said, nothing this is the way of the future — and media companies need to get involved in how students are being taught. “There are hundreds of schools of journalism across the continent, and we really need to deepen the links between our media groups and our university schools of journalism.”

Many schools in Africa still teach journalism “by theory book learning,” he said, which means students learn about such things as media law and ethics, but aren’t taught essentials such as how to pitch a story to an editor, how to behave in a newsroom, or how to investigate a challenging assignment.

“The gap (between the classroom and newsroom) is still too wide. As an industry, we need to look at ways of closing that gap and making it a seamless transition for these young people to get into mainstream newsrooms and play their part in transforming our industry.”

While at the BBC bureau in Johannesburg, Burdin created an internship programme with the University of Johannesburg. He was “alarmed” to discover that most of the students he recruited for the internships had never worked in a newsroom. In response to that problem, they began accepting two students at a time for a three-month period and taught them the essentials: how newsrooms work, how to come up with story ideas, how to pitch stories, and how to turn a story idea into a final, aired product.

“Likewise, in Ethiopia, I traveled widely and trained, I think, 120 young journalists in six different regions and discovered that there was a lot of talent, but often that talent lacks the opportunity or the freedom to flourish.”

Pairing young journalists with veterans is one way to improve training and teach everything from basic technical skills like editing to “tricks of the trade,” including interviewing skills, phone techniques, and more. At the same time, the younger generation of journos can teach mid-career journalists more about digital media and data.

Peter Burdin, BBC Africa advisor, shared three positive efforts in Africa to improve media talent.
Peter Burdin, BBC Africa advisor, shared three positive efforts in Africa to improve media talent.

Burdin is particularly encouraged by three efforts in Africa today:

  • Africa No Filter: An initiative that encourages better writing and is helping redesign how journalist tell Africa’s story.
  • Solutions Journalism Africa: A network that brings African journalists together to explore what works, what doesn’t, and create a climate of inspiring one another with best practices.
  • Top story: This innovative model sees East African universities compete in a reality TV show in which they demonstrate their journalism abilities and the best story wins.

The continent is attracting more international funding, and Burdin said he hopes to see some of the rich organisations in Africa begin contributing to funding. He also said it is imperative industry focus on attracting the next generation both as journalists and as an audience.

“Africa is a young population. The continent is about to double its population in the next generation. And if the media is going to survive, we need to stay relevant to that young audience and the content that they want from us.”

About Paula Felps

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