It is not looking good for the newspaper industry — at least by US newspaper standards.
An analysis by Pew Research Center which involved the unenviable task of sifting through data from the Alliance for Audited media, has shown that 2018 was the worst year yet for newspaper circulation, the lowest since 1940.
It doesn’t end there. The year 2019 started on a sorry note for journalists. Major newspaper companies and digital publications like Buzzfeed and Huffpost announced a series of layoffs.
Another research by Pew Research has shown that newspaper jobs have declined by 45 per cent between 2008 and 2017 and even the fast rise of jobs within digital publications is not enough to cover for the newspaper jobs lost.
Now, we may not have such studies in this side of the world, but it is pretty obvious that our newspaper industry is on its deathbed.
Editors may not readily admit, but circulation figures are not as luring as they were in 2012-2014.
Newsrooms are haemorrhaging journalists, losing them to PR, academia and corporate communication.
Kenyan media is no longer in the golden age. Gone are the days when journalists would take home eye-watering bonuses three times their salaries.
It doesn’t help that a good number of Kenyans consume news and media through their mobile phones now more than ever. But that you already know.
There has been a scramble for a solution for the future of journalism. Buzzwords have been thrown around — Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Augmented and Virtual Reality.
To use a common Kenyan phrase, money has been poured into these projects with enthusiasm previously reserved for life jackets in the Titanic.
In the midst of all these experimenting with technology and new ideas — which is great — I’d like to urge my media colleagues to step back, take a deep breath and for a moment forget about all the fancy tech words and focus on the most important thing: storytelling.
“Innovation” in the media space is not about tech and all other big and shiny buzzwords. Media innovation is about storytelling.
It is about telling a good story in different, exciting and convenient formats — convenient here being purely for the benefit of the readers.
It is about telling stories that resonate with readers, stories that readers care about, stories with a high potential for engagement with an otherwise busy audience.
There has been a discussion on whether Kenyan media can sell journalism. Can a paywall work in Kenya?
Do Kenyan journalists have the capacity and intellectual wherewithal to write stories powerful enough to loosen our purse strings?
My simple answer is Yes. However, mine is not blind optimism, we must be aware of some hard facts.
First, we don’t know if Kenyans are willing to pay for news. Global rates for willingness to pay for news are dismal except for Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden, and people have reported a general news avoidance, news overload and subscription fatigue.
I also know that anecdotal evidence has suggested an impressive uptake of paid content platforms such as Netflix and Showmax, but that’s different from journalistic content.
Journalism in Kenya and the world over has competition from ‘more interesting’ media bundles like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
In fact, the latest "Digital News Report" study showed that only seven per cent of readers under the age of 45 would pick an online news subscription if they had the option to have only one paid subscription for a year.
Netflix and online music (Apple music and Spotify) were the winners at 37 per cent and 15 per cent.
This presents us a challenge; we don’t know if a paywall would flop or prevail if we dedicated massive resources to a world-class paywall.
But, I see an opportunity in this challenge; that sometimes readers — Kenyan readers — don’t know what they want until you show them value for your new product.
I think Kenyan media could experiment with a paywall by using a simple strategy. First, let the paid content be a completely different product.
There is no need to charge readers for incremental news which they will access for free elsewhere. There is also no need to duplicate content across the physical paper, website and e-paper.
My argument would be, that newspapers dedicate special dream teams of the best journalists in the land, provide them with the resources to work on groundbreaking investigative stories. It must not end there.
Present these stories in exciting formats; this is where you bring in the techies to help you with AR, VR, graphics, visuals and everything nice.
Then, put up a paywall. I’d throw in another trick and make three really great stories free and ask readers to pay for the rest.
Would Kenyan readers pay for such? I don’t know. I know I would pay top dollar for a superbly written piece of Kenyan journalism.
The paywall strategy is a simple idea to execute. It’s challenging and high risk. But waiting and dilly-dallying is the easiest path to failure. Just do it!