Technology ‘killing’ journalism, but it’s a good thing: long live journalism

Wednesday May 13 2015

Facebook has teamed up with nine news publishers to launch a feature that will allow them to publish articles directly on the network's mobile news feeds. PHOTO | FILE

Facebook has teamed up with nine news publishers to launch a feature that will allow them to publish articles directly on the network's mobile news feeds. PHOTO | FILE 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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As was widely reported, on Wednesday Facebook launched “Instant Articles”, a feature that will allow publishers to directly publish on the network’s mobile news feeds.

Nine American and European publishers are partnering in this test phase, but before long we will all have a piece of the action — if we want to.

The plan is that news publishers can either sell advertisements in the articles, and keep all of the revenue, or allow Facebook to sell ads, and they pocket 30 per cent.

There has been talk about how social media and the internet in general are killing or have killed traditional media like print, and now we have this — even news companies’ websites themselves could soon be kaput.

I know someone who will love all this disruption — Saturday Nation columnist and consultant Sunny Bindra.

Just over two years ago I attended a social media summit led by Bindra at the Strathmore Business School. Invariably, he had a session on disruption.

BINDRA WAS RIGHT

At one point he asked how many people were wearing watches. Most were. He noted that wearing a watch was no longer for telling time, but for vanity as everyone who could afford a watch could also afford a mobile phone, which was a better device for telling time. Folks look at their phone screens many times more than they do at their watches.

Bindra was right that the watch was dying, but it has been killed by something many did not foresee then. At that time no one was talking about the Samsung and Apple watch. Samsung and Apple have buried the watch as a time-telling device.

They turned it into a device, running apps for fitness, stock updates, and a mirror for your mobile phone. The time function is just one app of many on these new watches, and some people will choose not to have it. And, yes, you can use it for news. The Wall Street Journal last month launched its news app for the Apple watch.

Even before “Instant Articles”, some media companies had already dumped their websites altogether and are publishing directly to social media.

It only helps, again, to highlight how archaic some of our media practices are. Today, for example Daily Nation, The Standard, The People, The Star, and everyone else transport papers separately to Mombasa, yet they could all fit in one big delivery van.

Then, once there, the same vendors sell them.

They are also printed separately, yet Nation can print all the papers everyone sells in Mombasa in a 15-minute run.

It is the same with radio and TV, although the recent developments in digital migration have thrown a monkey wrench into that. Everyone has his or her masts and transmitters.

TAKING OVER

It is the same with mobile phone companies, but now in countries like Uganda the operators ended the madness and sold their masts to a firm that has consolidated everything and saved them loads of money.

It still is the case that in addition to distribution, advertising sales is a big part of media operations. Now firms like Facebook are offering to take that off publishers’ hands too.

The wise ones will go for it. All this is good for journalism. Newsrooms are full of clever editors whose energies are sapped by daily meetings on circulation, advertising, and such things that leave them drained and unable to do their primary job — journalism.

Media company business managers in Kenya too are now worrying themselves to death about roads that have been washed out by the rain and delivery vans getting bogged down in city floods.

If they subcontracted all these headaches out to specialised firms, they would not have to be distracted. With all attention focused again on journalism, it would get better and make more money.

As the Uber taxi app teaches us, you do not need to own a single car to be the biggest taxi company in the world. The first time I used Uber, I paid for that trip one-third of the fare I used to fork out to my good old trusted cabbie. I have not looked back.

You would think with such low fares, Uber drivers are not making money. However, the last time I spoke to one in Nairobi, he told me that while he makes less on each trip, he is doing 10 times more jobs and earns more than three times what he used to. Journalism’s Uber moment might just have arrived too.

The author is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa. Twitter@cobbo3