Letter to the regular Kenyan editor: These are the folks eating our lunch

Nearly every Kenyan media company laid off staff and revenues from traditional media flat-lined or fell.

Thursday January 14 2016

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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Like elsewhere in the world, 2015 was a tough year for Kenyan media. There was the battle over digital TV migration that was lost, and ultimately cost some media firms dearly.

Nearly every Kenyan media company laid off staff and revenues from traditional media flat-lined or fell.

Looking ahead, in 2016 East Africa, particularly Kenya, might also begin to see the effects of digital TV migration and other shifts.

The conventional wisdom used to be that some of the technology innovations in the rest of the world were too “advanced” to threaten African media.

But facing challenges, even African publishers have become very bold.

City Press in South Africa, for example, has tested automated copy editing, and the results have been surprisingly good.

ONLINE NEWS

With the threats, opportunities abound. All over the world, the number of people consuming news via the Internet and messaging apps is rising like crazy, so the media leaders who will figure out how to play in that space and make money will find even greater fortune.

Still, hurdles will have to be overcome. A recent report on global media noted that the use of ad blockers is rising sharply, and globally over 35 per cent of the younger much-sought-after media consumers have deployed them.

So while more and more people are coming to read news online, you cannot make as much money from selling advertising to them.

Still, even with all that, technology of itself might not be the main disruption we will face in the region.

The biggest change will come from the adoption of otherwise simple formats and approaches by creative folks in media.

ZONE 9

Let us illustrate. In October last year, members of a bloggers collective in Ethiopia, called Zone 9, were acquitted of terrorism after 18 months in jail.

No one really took the charges seriously, but it meant that there was almost no focus on the real reason the bloggers got into trouble.

The main problem seems to have been the name Zone 9 itself.

Zone 9 was a reference to Ethiopia’s infamous Kaliti prison, which has eight wings.

With that name, the bloggers were saying that the ninth zone was the rest of Ethiopia. The idea of the rest of Ethiopia being one vast prison, and thus a wing of Kaliti, was very powerful, and delightfully subversive.

These ideas and forms of expression that are so out of the mainstream they challenge the status quo dramatically are what will eventually do in regular media if they cannot find a new language.

MOONSOONS OVER THE MOON

Take Kenya. If you stopped 1,000 filmgoers on Nairobi’s streets and asked them which films they watched in 2015, particularly Kenyan ones, it would be a near-miracle if two mentioned Monsoons over the Moon or To Catch a Dream.

If you track these things online, however, you might have watched Monsoons over the Moon by Kenyan filmmaker Dan Muchina.

But in doing the two-part and strikingly high-quality post-apocalyptic film, he directs it under the pseudonym Abstract Omega.

It is a strange world in which Nairobi is ruled by a dictator. A gang called The Monsoons that had seceded from that cruel world bounces back to lead a fight to free young Nairobians from the tyranny.

Of equal quality and edge is To Catch a Dream, starring model Ajuma Nasenyana. Barely 10 minutes, it is a gritty mix of fashion and the supernatural.

Last year was big for this genre in Africa and the website OkayAfrica.com (credit to them) does a beautiful list of some of these African sci-fi films, although if you are into these things you might not find some of your favourites of the year.

Similarly, sometime back, I got hooked to Drunk History, an innovative story-telling approach that you can find on YouTube.

They are 7-8 minute clips of dramatised important historical or news events told by a witty and clever person, but when they are drunk.

It is a stroke of genius and millions have viewed the series.

There has also been the rise of the “explainer”, as opposed to traditional news. On YouTube young people are totally in love with Vsauce. The grown-ups like CGP Grey, driving millions of eyeballs to the channels. None of these story formats has taken off big time in Africa yet, but they have arrived.

It is these things, not the fancy technology of itself, that should keep our media chiefs awake at night.

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

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