In the past few months, we have seen leading media houses in Kenya cut salaries and lay off staff, citing dwindling revenue as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many media outlets heavily depend on advertising revenue, a stream that has run dry due to the economic recession into which the country has plunged.
If we are to take the experts’ word that Kenya is still far from hitting the peak of the pandemic, then one wonders if we will have a media sector to speak of in months to come.
What is of concern is that even though media houses have been listed by the government as providers of essential services, and invariably lauded by the authorities, their financial welfare hasn’t been addressed. The sector was conspicuously left out when President Uhuru Kenyatta declared tax breaks and capitations.
There are a number of countries where, in recognising the vital need for quality media coverage during the pandemic, government has factored in the sector while implementing economic stimulus measures. New Zealand, for instance, set aside up to NZ$50m (Sh3.5 billion) to help cover journalists’ salaries to avoid job losses and sustain ailing media establishments during the coronavirus pandemic. Even though New Zealand is a much wealthier country, the government of Kenya can borrow a leaf and attempt something similar, even if on a smaller scale. We have seen how most media outlets have dedicated air time and acres of space to educate the public on Covid-19 without demanding to be paid. The government must meet them halfway.
And as the government moves in to cushion the sector, media houses must also step up their efforts to support their staff by developing a shift-based work system as an option to lay-offs, even as they internally develop a sustainability fund for rainy days like what they are currently experiencing.
Lay-offs and staff retrenchments in media houses didn’t start with Covid-19. Staff retrenchment has been an existential concern for many industry players, with the recent upheavals stretching back to 2019 when several media companies started letting go of their staff in what the management of media organisations have termed as right-sizing, reorganization or restructuring. For instance, between October 2019 and June 2020, over 300 journalists have lost their jobs, according to Kenya Editors Guild.
It has been observed that one of the main causes of job losses in Kenya and globally is technological disruption, which has compelled most media houses to make changes to deal with the shifting landscape and cater for digital consumers. According to a report by Deloitte in the US, at least one million viewers in the US cancelled their multichannel subscription television services, opting for a combination of broadband Internet and Internet Protocol TV, digital terrestrial television broadcasts, digital video recorders, or free-to-air satellite television in the third quarter of 2017 alone.
And as consumers shift their consumption to emerging social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook, social media has also taken away a considerably big chunk of the advertising revenue that was once solely enjoyed by the traditional media.
What’s more, the government has been painfully slow at paying media houses for advertising services rendered, the bills accumulated over the years currently standing at about Sh2.5 billion. This has exacerbated the financial challenges the sector has gone through in these lean times.
With several journalists sent packing, newsrooms find themselves highly understaffed and reduced workforce translates to reduced output. This might mean that a journalist is not assigned to cover a story unless it is very ‘significant, leading to several ‘insignificant’ events going unreported.
Without remedial technological interventions, a thin newsroom might also mean that the few journalists available overstretch to plug the gaps left behind by those laid off. This might compromise the work of journalists hence restraining their capability to fully execute their mandate.
Additionally, looming pay-cuts, staff lay-offs, and loss of revenues make journalists anxious and often insecure about their jobs and financial stability. This again hampers their ability to focus on dealing with the tasks at hand.
To not fully inform, educate and entertain its audience would mean the media is failing to deliver on its core mandates.
The media and journalists that will eventually survive the disruptions are those that will innovate. In the interim, however, the government must step in and bail out the sector.
Ohaga Ohaga is a Kenyan journalist, writer, and communication specialist with special interest in media law and political communication.