“Vibrant, vigorous in nature and generally free,” is how Linus Kaikai, director of strategy and innovation at Kenya TV station Citizen TV, describes sustainability in the Kenyan media environment. He was speaking at the Sustainable Journalism in Practice Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.

Kaikai says the sustainability of journalism needs to be interrogated broadly from three perspectives. “Financial sustainability, content sustainability and industrywide sustainability. Do we exist as an individual media house or should media houses view themselves as part of an ecosystem?” asks Kaikai. He says ethics needs to be a central part of sustainable journalism. Kaikai questions whether ethics would be subject to the ever-changing trends in the media landscape. “On a daily basis, lines between business and journalism are blurred as media companies try to sustain themselves financially,” says Kaikai.

He says in the broadcasting space, the reforms of 1991 opened the space for more media companies to enter. “Political liberation also informs the growth of the media industry,” he said. Some media houses have more than 1 platform. The country has more than 135 TV stations, more than 200 radio stations broadcasting in different local languages and 100 print both online and on paper.

Kaikai says their main focus at CITIZEN TV is to chase the audience. He says from the Kenyan perspective, revenue follows audiences. “We have tried to segment our platforms to ensure the content speaks to audiences where they are and in their languages,” he says. Kaikai says apart from chasing audiences, it is also important to include local businesses in regions where platforms are based. “Some businesses do not need the national platform but want to speak to local audiences and customers,” he said. He says only the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation benefit from government funding even though it is not consistent.

According to deputy digital editor and president of Standard Group Women Network, Queenter Mbori, media challenges started before Covid-19 as media owners failed to embrace digital migration. She says media owners and journalists are currently suffering from poor foresight as credibility has been moved from mainstream media and moved to bloggers. “There are people who believe what bloggers are saying more than what mainstream media is reporting. Our slow reaction to digital migration is the reason why the majority of media houses have been unable to pay salaries, unable to sustain the media business,” says Mbori. She says it is time media organisations think beyond the traditional way of covering news. “We as media need to ask ourselves how do we train in our media school, how do we partner with organisations that are willing to provide the same solutions that we stand for,” she says. Mbori says the media needs to introspect and ask why people should be consuming our news.

Media Labs have been greatly a Kenyan experience, where universities have played a role in training journalists. Hesbon Owilla, from the Aga Khan Graduate School for Media and Communications says training institutions play their part in equipping journalists with essential skills. “Training is not the biggest problem but the fluidity and speed at which technology is advancing is what should be the major concern,” he says. Owilla says their institution focuses on how they can create value out of the training the graduate has. He believes that by increasing the scale of training for journalists, the industry would still be faced with the same issues. “Media houses do not have the monopoly of eyeballs, they are now in competition with content creators, who are producing content which has zero public interest dimension,” he says. Owilla says media houses need to ask themselves whether the content they are putting out is quality content audiences will be willing to buy and whether the content is sustainably viable.

Kaikai says when it comes to the sustainability of the media, it is important for media houses to acknowledge that no media house is an island, media exists in a national economic environment and when the economy is not doing well, the industry suffers. He says market forces within the media and innovation and technology also contribute to media sustainability. “When advertisers decide to not spend, commercial broadcasters take the greatest heat, this was evident in 2020 when Covid-19 hit,” he says. Kaikai says 2020 was the year when the media industry started thinking broadly about sustainability. In Kenya, one of the biggest advertising spenders comes from the government. The country has the Government Advertising Agency where all advertising by the government goes through. Kaikai says this agency has acted more as a ‘bottleneck’ than an enabler due to debt owed to the media. “Print media is owed a lot of money by the agency through adverts,” he says. He says media houses with the most ratings and audiences receive more advertising.

Another battleground that Kaikai has identified in journalism sustainability in Kenya, is in the digital space. He says there is a scramble amongst media houses in Kenya to mirror the content they produce for legacy platforms into digital. He says some organisations have embraced diversifying content. “Royal Media has diversified our offerings like adding travel, and advertising, we have our own advertising agency and videos on demand,” he says. Kaikai believes this move can fund quality journalism. “The rule of journalism is that we don’t pay for stories, someone has to pay for journalists to go there and tell the story,” he says.

Kaikai questions the fate of journalism when sustainability is seen from a commercial point of view. He argues that journalism remains the same as it has to be of high quality in order to drive the commercial aspect, yet journalism has to remain independent to ensure the media house is credible.

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