How COVID-19 Complicated Kenya’s Media Sustainability Problems

By Joy Chelagat

Joy Chelagat is Internews’ Media Business Advisor for Africa. Internews works with the Media Council of Kenya, the Editors’ Guild and media houses in Kenya to protect and promote freedom of the media, with the support of USAID, and produced this report to help advertisers, donors, reporters and editors understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the media sector in Kenya. This is the first story in a series dedicated to media sustainability in Sub-Saharan Africa.

When reports of a new coronavirus originating from Wuhan, China hit the online news desk at K24 in Nairobi in early 2020, the national TV station’s content manager Joel Muinde had no way of knowing how this footnote in his world news coverage would shape the execution of his duties for the better part of the year. In two months, Muinde had to restructure his teams’ workflow to deliver COVID-19 content to consumers, as well as figure out how to work safely in the pandemic.

Kenya confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 13. As reports of the virus spread, Muinde and his team noticed heightened audience interest in what was quickly becoming a global health crisis. Over the next few weeks, Kenya’s government announced a raft of containment measures that affected business operations in the country. The media industry was not spared.

Newsrooms Pivot to Working from Home

“Our leadership informed us that only essential staff would be allowed to access the office to minimize exposure,” said Muinde. “Social media staff could no longer live-tweet from the studio or go live on location from their mobile devices. Teams working on YouTube or newspaper uploads had to get special software on their devices so they could work from home.” Each team leader had to present a business continuity plan to the management, in the face of the pandemic.

On a typical day, K24’s five-member digital content team publishes 20 news articles and uploads 35 YouTube videos from the outlet’s TV operations. They also manage social media engagement for TV programs, stream five national news broadcasts on social media, and support a sister publication with e-paper uploads.

Managing pandemic coverage, while simultaneously transitioning newsroom processes to adhere to public health regulations was admittedly challenging for newsrooms. Digital natives – publishers who primarily engage audiences online – found the transition process relatively simpler than legacy newsrooms.

Digital Newsrooms Adapt More Quickly

Robert Ndung’u, founder of a leading independent digital publisher, says investing in tools that allow for remote work shortened his teams’ response time to the new public health regulations.

“From the beginning, I chose to purchase tools that allowed my team to work from anywhere – laptops, cameras, production equipment,” said Ndung’u. “We also invest time in a thorough recruitment and induction process to ensure that content creators understand the style, our workflow, and our audience’s expectations.  Even before the pandemic, our team was in the habit of collaborating virtually for content production.”

The lean workforce strategies he employed as a digital native competing with legacy brands in the market eventually helped his editorial team swiftly adapt to the shift in the business environment.

“We asked ourselves: how can we produce quality journalistic content, without duplicating complex organizational structures used in traditional news outlets?” he said, adding that his approach is centered on targeted content, efficiency, and a culture of constant innovation. Despite not benefiting from the backing of an established legacy brand, Ndung’u has managed to maintain his position as a top ten news site in the country.

Engaging Audiences in Content Production

Managing Editor Robin Njogu says the 13 stations he oversees noticed a marked increase in audience engagement at the beginning of the crisis, as citizens sought to be part of the public dialogue around Kenya’s handling of the virus.

“One clear shift in audience behavior was increased engagement across all social media and SMS lines, particularly in the hours before and after the national press conferences,” he said. “Kenyans were keen to understand the impact state directives would have on their daily lives; they also wanted to voice their concerns about the Government’s handling of the pandemic.”

Echoing Njogu’s sentiments about increased engagement, Simaloi Dajom, Mediamax Network Limited’s Chief Radio, Content and Strategy Officer, says direct audience feedback is key in crafting appropriate response strategies as the situation continues to unfold.

“Over time, interest in the doom and gloom stories waned as ‘pandemic fatigue’ set in. Monitoring audience responses across platforms enabled us to quickly shift our focus to life under the ‘new normal,’ and we have seen our numbers stabilize, she says of the six radio stations she manages.

Dajom points out that while market research and ratings reports are important in the decision-making process, direct audience feedback (collected from the stations social media, SMS, and web platforms) provides invaluable insight on how to best serve and engage audiences. She adds that this approach has borne fruit for a national Swahili station she manages.

“We have seen a direct positive impact in our audience numbers with Milele FM registering unprecedented growth from being sixth in national audience numbers in the last quarter of 2019 to ranking 2nd nationally by May 2020 according to independent media research from Geopoll,” she said.

Media Houses Lay Off Employees as Advertising Revenue Dwindles

As the economic effects of the virus hit Kenya’s economy, advertising revenues dwindled, with companies pausing or scaling back ad spending. Media owners announced austerity measures, including mass layoffs and pay cuts of up to 50%.

Affected employees, their representatives and unions took to social media and even sought to litigate at the industrial court, to put pressure on owners to review their decision. Meanwhile, the Kenya Editors Guild (KEG) red-flagged the impact of the health crisis on the industry from the very onset.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Kenya, media houses have been laying off journalists and support staff and enforcing pay cuts. The pandemic exacerbated an already dire situation, with more than 300 journalists having lost their jobs in the past nine months,” Churchill Otieno, KEG President said in late June. The Media Council of Kenya (MCK), an independent body that regulates the sector, estimates that this number has now risen to 600.

Though editors concede that media organizations need to make cutbacks as a result of the “corona cash crunch,” they point out that there are “indications that some media houses may be taking advantage of the situation to enforce staff layoffs and salary cuts.”

Media Sustainability in Kenya Needs to be Addressed Long Term

While KEG’s assertion is debatable, most stakeholders agree that the situation has served to further underscore the need to address media sustainability in Kenya. Having worked in the industry for over 15 years, Peter Opondo argues that COVID-19 hit the industry hard because media houses had ‘pre-existing business conditions.’

“COVID-19 pandemic is like the smoldering cigarette that was dropped in a forest and ignited a massive fire,” says Opondo. “To blame the cigarette for causing the fire would be to ignore one major fact; that there had to be conducive conditions in the forest that allowed the fire to spread — the local media were already sick before the coronavirus.”

He argues that while the industry has witnessed numerous changes over the last decade — relaunches, digital expansions, product releases, and strategic pivots — the industry approach has remained relatively static, even as the market and audience behaviors evolved. When new ideas are fronted, he says they often struggle to take flight. “Projects that do not show immediate financial promise are abandoned because payoff time frames are unrealistically short and risk tolerance and patience are in low supply.”

Cross-industry partnerships and strategic acquisitions could be one way to utilize media’s core competencies, while expanding the range of products and services firms provide.

The Government Needs to Honor its Obligations to Media, says Media Council

As business leaders evaluate their mid and long-term strategic interventions, the Media Council has renewed calls for payment of outstanding bills owed to media organizations. Victor Bwire, who serves as the regulator’s Head of Media Development and Strategy, insists that the state must walk the talk when it comes to sustainability.

“The state, which is the biggest advertiser in the country, currently owes media organizations Ksh2.8 billion (USD 2.8 million) shillings – this even as media owners are laying off staff and imposing salary cuts. They must honor their business obligations to media,” says Bwire.

“We need to also rework legislation and policy, because these have a direct correlation to the cost of doing business.  Reviewing license costs, lowering taxation on broadcast equipment, and the establishment of a media diversity fund could complement players’ internal business efforts,” he states, adding that the Council has already engaged the Ministry of Information on their proposals.

MCK is also working to directly support community radio and TV stations through a Ksh.100 million (USD 922 thousand) grant, targeting 150 outlets across the country. Already, the regulator has kicked off media management training for grassroot stations across the country. On August 26, the Editors Guild held a virtual media stakeholders’ convention where further calls for government support, were made.

“If the Government can come up with a rescue package for tourism, then why can’t they do the same for the media, considering the critical role we play in this economy?” asked Media Owners’ Association Chair, Waruru Wachira.

A follow up meeting is scheduled for September, where stakeholders are expected to agree on resolutions and chart the way forward.  As these high-level media sustainability engagements take place, editors work with smaller teams and fewer resources to keep the news engine going, in the middle of a global pandemic.

(Banner photo: Milele FM presenter Mercy Mmbone during a national broadcast; presenters continue to work in the studio during the pandemic. Credit Milele FM / Dickson Mpapale)