The Covid-19 global pandemic has hit many sectors of the economy hard with our newspaper pages and television airtime awash with reports of firms downsizing and some closing down.
Not since the Great Depression has the world experienced anything like this. And journalists, who are in the frontline reporting all this, are now on the receiving end — perhaps more than anyone else.
Layoffs, pay cuts and closures, for the smaller media houses, have become the order of the day. And this doesn’t augur well for the society because, unlike other industries that are bread-and-butter concerns, the media performs the watchdog role and its survival and vibrancy is vital for the health of democracy.
We have come a long way since Thomas Jefferson ‘saw the light’ and declared that nothing in a newspaper was to be believed. No well-meaning leader can suggest that a country such as ours can thrive without the watchful eye of the media, which check our excesses and nudges us onto the straight and narrow when we go astray. Eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.
Even governments that often have run-ins with the media acknowledge its central role in society and rally the public behind it. Their ministers have urged the public to buy newspapers to support local and national media houses facing significant financial pressure due to the pandemic, which has seen businesses suspend operations, scale down or even close shop. For those still operational, marketing budgets are not considered essential and are the first to go when crises strike.
Yet the Fourth Estate continues to be a crucial centrepiece in the dissemination of pandemic-related information. To contain the spread of the coronavirus, millions of people are largely confined to their homes as a measure to reduce exponential infections.
Where water dispenser and bar counter banter previously served as exchange points for small talk, television and radio have clearly become the refuge of the lonely.
A recent GeoPoll study showed that TV consumption increased by 355,000 days after the government issued countrywide safety protocols that included the stay-at-home advisory.
Yet the uncertainty caused by the pandemic continues to affect media houses in unprecedented ways. The apprehension is mainly about what the future holds for media revenues when advertising, its lifeblood, is gasping for breath.
Covid-19 could not have come at a worse time. Having dithered in decisively embracing the digital model following the disruption of the social media a decade or so ago, newspapers, TV and radio stations alike have seen their revenues eroded to a near-trickle. It was bound to take a calamity like the coronavirus to shake them to their roots.
But even as our media houses scurry to secure their businesses, they need us all, since they play a patriotic role. Poll after poll show our media up there among the most trusted institutions and we must all safeguard it.
On a positive note, while the media environment may, at present, look bleak, all is not lost for it as we see in the West and elsewhere, where big newspapers that embraced digital journalism early on are thriving. They include the New York Times, which, as other newspapers shed staff over recent years, has been on a hiring spree.
The time to rethink the print-and-ad model and embrace partnerships and sponsorships as the main bloodline of newsrooms is now. The media also need to think like universities and start endowment funds, which ensure sustainability, and other solutions.
That is why the recent move by the Media Council of Kenya (MCK) to support local journalism must be lauded and emulated. The regulatory body pumped Sh100 million into media associations and community stations to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on journalists.
While 30 professional media groups received between Sh30,000 and Sh250,000, some 120 community-based and local language radio stations and 25 local and digital TV stations received grants of Sh150,000 and Sh1000,000.
The fund will enable community media houses to disseminate coronavirus-related stories and disabuse citizens of myths that could easily make many victims of misguided options.
MCK also suspended subscription fees for media enterprises for six months, for the March-September quarter, to help them to reduce the cost of doing business and save jobs.
But this is not enough. The interventions will only be sustainable if they converge with innovations driven by media houses themselves.
Mr Kisang, MP for Marakwet West, is outgoing chairman of the Committee on Information, Communication and Innovation in the National Assembly. [email protected]