The drip drip flow of bad news continues for the media industry in Kenya. The most recent is the intended closure of some Nation Media Group outlets. Rather than look at the retail reasons that have contributed to this, it is better to focus on the big picture.
First, the relationship between the media and this government has been less than cordial. While it started on a high note with a breakfast at State House, some urged caution lest the media were sucked into an embrace with the government and cease to play its watchdog role. But they needed not worry. From then, the relationship has been going downhill.
The media would have withstood the spat between the government and the industry. However, this government has gone a step further and touched the media where it hurts most, nay, where it cripples.
It appears the media had not sufficiently appreciated how important the government is as a source of advertising revenue – the lifeblood of any media house.
For long, the industry had treated big corporate advertisers well because of their advertising spend. But the big hitter has always been the government. Thus when the government pooled its advertising under one roof, the media found itself in a fix. I doubt that the intention was to cripple the media, but that seems to be the outcome.
Then there have been changes in technology which have had negative effect on the traditional media. Whereas the mainstream media remained the authoritative source of news for years, new competitors have come on board in the industry not with great effect.
While the traditional media is ill suited for breaking news, the public doesn’t sit down waiting for the breaking story but more of a confirmation and a placing of the story in context through analysis and interpretation. This has further reduced the revenue of the media through reduced circulation and the increasing number of outlets.
The combined force of economic dynamics, State disposition towards media and emerging technologies means that today the industry is splintering with many small players emerging chipping away at the big players. What should be of even more concern is the impact that this is having on society.
Obviously, there is retrenchment under whatever name it comes which translates in loss of income for families. This would have been ameliorated if the economy was expanding fast enough.
But that is not the case. But even more critically is what this is doing and would mean for the balancing of social forces.
The more the merrier and more so in the media for it provides opportunity for more voices controlled by more people to prevail. The history of media takes us back to the days when those who owned media houses could decide who they published and who they did not and by extension which voice got out and which did not. Their decision too often was not informed by the good of society but by their whims.
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The notion of the social responsibility of the media provided a measure of professionalism and responsibility so that the decisions media institutions made were guided by principles related to the good of society.
It is not for nothing that the freedom of the press is such a cherished principle. It allows media professionals to operate without interference but also allows all manner of ideas to be freely expressed. The more the media outlets the aggressiveness with which they compete for ideas and the more those ideas, the better the society.
Such aggressiveness would sometimes mean that the media get it wrong – but it is the price we pay for a more informed society. This is what makes the current trend in the media where outlets are shutting down so serious. The media is crying for rescue and it is in our collective interest to heed the cry. But the only institution with the ability to do that is the government.
Liberal advertising will not only stir life in this industry, create jobs but also grow the economy through increased spending.
The writer is Dean, School of Communications, Language and Performing Arts at Daystar University. This commentary was originally published in the People Daily