Botswana: Digitization Without Monetization – African News Media Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Ntibinyane Ntibinyane says that African local news outlets need innovation — and money. The founder of the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism highlights that journalism in Africa is facing increasing threats.

DW: How much were media outlets in Botswana hit by the corona-crisis?

Ntibinyane Ntibinyane: If technology was a major disrupter for news outlets, then COVID-19 has been a sweeping tsunami on African economies and the news media. Before the outbreak of COVID-19, newspapers in Africa, including my home country of Botswana, were struggling to survive due to the rise of the internet and the challenging economic environment.

The traditional business model for newspapers underpinned by advertising and circulation was on a free fall. The virus has now forced unprepared media organizations to hurriedly transition to digital platforms.

Are there any opportunities for newspapers in being forced to act so fast with regard to digitization?

First, it is important to stress that most news organizations during the COVID-19 age are churning out more content online than ever before. Many news organizations on the continent have transitioned to digital platforms in the past five months — much more than at any other time in history.

The problem, however, is that they have not figured out how to make money online. They are clueless. News outlets, in particular newspapers, are running out of money and time during this crisis. This forced transition will lead to the deaths of many newspapers on the continent.

Can providing more content online ensure the survival of these newspapers in any way? Would a complete transition to digital be a viable option?

Advertising and sales revenues are plummeting and news organizations are closing operations, laying off staff, and suspending their print operations. So, providing more or less editorial content online is not a survival strategy.

The challenge for African news organizations at this very hour is to find ways to make money online and survive post-COVID-19. This requires innovation not only at the technological level but at policy, strategy, and operational levels. This is urgent.

Does this present growth of digital platforms mean there are more opportunities for democracy to grow and flourish?

Well, on paper it serves democracy best to have a plurality of news platforms – on and offline platforms. Recently, Africa has seen the mushrooming of online-only news platforms – big and small. Some have gained traction and trust from the public and are doing exceptionally well in holding power to account. The Premium Times in Nigeria and News 24 in South Africa are the best examples here.

But the proliferation of digital news platforms also has the potential to harm democracy, social cohesion, and governance. Some of these platforms are spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories with malicious intent.

So democracy also needs journalism as a watchdog, especially when it comes to investigative journalism. What efforts should be made to save investigative journalism for post COVID-19?

No doubt, investigative journalism contributes to the strengthening of democracy and accountability – and it is indeed endangered in Africa. A lack of resources, draconian laws and growing intolerance are all threats investigative journalists face.

The following needs to be done for the survival of investigative journalism during and post COVID-19: More nonprofit news outlets should be established on the continent. Because they are not under the pressure of having to make a profit. They need increased investment by local and international donor organizations.

Besides nonprofit organizations, donors should fund independent news outlets as well. In addition to donor funding, news outlets should consider building up a grassroots model to fund investigative journalism. News organizations and other stakeholders on the continent should intensify lobbying for the protection of journalists and for repealing draconian laws.

How can news outlets and journalists support each other during this present crisis situation?