Future of News: The View from Accra
I’m in Accra for roughly 60 hours, long enough to remember why I love this country so very much, but not long enough to see all the people I want to see, to visit the markets and streets that I miss, and most challenging, to eat all the marvelous food this country has to offer. (After landing last night, I went straight to Osu night market for a plate of omo tuo at Asanka Local. Closed, so it was charcoal chicken and fried rice at Papaye, not a bad second choice.)
I’m here for a board meeting for PenPlusBytes, a Ghanaian NGO I’ve helped advise for years, which has recently transformed from a group of trainers helping Ghanaian journalists practice computer-assisted reporting, to one focused on the challenging task of using technology to hold governments accountable and responsible. Because my fellow board members include luminaries like open source pioneer Nnenna Nwakanma and journalist Dan Gillmor, we’re using the excuse of a meeting to throw a quick conference on the future of news.
Asked to think about the future of news in the context of digital media, changes to existing business models and Ghana’s particular role in the world of news, here’s what I offered this morning at the Future of News event at the Alisa Hotel.
My friends on the panel have mixed emotions about this moment in time for the news. I suspect in the context of this conversation, I may turn out to be the optimist in the room. I want to suggest that there are three really good reasons to be excited about this moment of time in news, particularly from a Ghanaian point of view. But I also want to argue that that Ghanaian organizations face two special challenges in navigating this new age.
First, the good news. When I was a student in Ghana in 1993 and 94, I often felt like I was a character in a movie because there was a soundtrack playing at all times… as you walked down the street, every radio was tuned to the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation, which had a monopoly over what everyone heard. The most noticeable change when I came back to Accra in the late 90s to start an NGO was the explosion of commercial radio. Ghana already a strong free press, and radio emerged as a powerful and often political medium that reaches all Ghanaians, whatever their level of education and whatever language they speak.
We’re at a moment in time where Ghana is recognized internationally for its free press – Reporters without Borders press freedom rankings put Ghana #22 in the world, ahead of the UK at #34 and the US at #49. The only other African nation in the top 25 is Namibia at #17. Those of us who love Ghana have gotten used to the idea that this country is in a remarkable position in terms of democratic elections, having enjoyed uneventful transitions since 2000, including the seamless transition after a leader died in office. Ghana is an exemplar to the region and to the continent, showing neighbors how it can be done, a stable democracy where the opposition comes in and out of power, a free press where we can debate, often fiercely, the problems of the day. When Ghana is experiencing problems like dumsor (a Twi word meaning “on/off”, a reference to the frequent power cuts that Ghana currently suffers from), we know that citizens can make their voices heard in the press, on the air and online, and that leaders will hear those frustrations.
Here’s another piece of good news. Middle income nations, nations where a middle class is growing, are the most promising new commercial markets for media. Global media companies are making huge investments right now in India, where hundreds of millions of new readers are becoming newspaper subscribers, and where younger ones are skipping the paper and becoming consumers of news on their smartphones. The smart companies are looking past India and towards Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya – nations with a strong, educated middle class hungry for news.
The open question is whether nations like India and Ghana can overcome the “print dollar, digital dimes” problem that’s threatening news in the US and Europe. Basically, in the US, online ads are much, much cheaper than ads in print media – as readers give up their newspaper subscriptions and read online, news organizations lose revenue. There’s no reason it has to be this way. African newspapers have the opportunity to figure out what it means to build a newsroom that’s digital first. This doesn’t just mean a newsroom that makes as much money from online subscriptions, sponsorships and memberships than it does from advertising. It also means a newsroom that expects its readers to report and participate as well as read, that sees itself as having a duty to its readers as citizens, not just as customers. I think Ghana has an amazing opportunity to pioneer new models for media that recognize the potentials of this new medium.
Here’s a third piece of good news, a statement I expect to cause some controversy. There has never been a better time to be a reader of news. And in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I commuted regularly between Accra and where I live in western MA. I ended up feeling like a magazine smuggler. I would come to Kotoka laden with the Economist and the New York Times Sunday magazine, and come back to the states with BBC Africa, the Graphic, the New African. Now we are all able to read from all over the world, limited only by the choices we make about what we choose to pay attention to. Writers need to be thinking this way, too – whether you’re Ghanaian or American, you need to work from the belief that you can write anywhere. An NGO I helped found a decade ago, Global Voices, serves almost as a labor matching service, helping international networks like Al Jazeera find great correspondents in Africa, Central Asia, other places where global news networks are having trouble finding local voices. There is enormous demand for good writing and for different perspectives, and not just by professional journalists. Some editors and many readers are realizing that they want and need to hear from people in other countries so they get a more accurate, nuanced and fair picture of the world. And as I argued in a piece in the Graphic last week, there are politically important reasons for Ghanaians to represent themselves on a global stage.
So, this is a pretty optimistic picture so far. Lest you think I’m completely sanguine about the future, let me mention two serious challenges, one which should be obvious and one that’s less so.
Yes, it’s a great time to read, and a great time to write, but a hard time to make a living writing and reporting. Newspapers have helped many writers find their voice, writing for a modest salary while learning the craft. In the US, at least, this is getting harder to do – shrinking local newsrooms mean that fewer people are getting that ability to engage in apprenticeship and learn on the job. Instead, young writers are finding themselves jumping into the deep end of the pool. One question we should be asking as more people in a country like Ghana are able to afford newspapers, as more radio stations are doing excellent journalism, as the economy continues to expand and advertising is a believable model to support journalism, how are we training a next generation professional journalists? Beyond that, how are we training a generation of citizens who write in public, who contribute to dialogs and make their point to their countrymen and to the rest of the world.
I would beg media outlets to think very carefully about their revenue models. As news organizations move from having a primarily offline audience to one that’s primarily online, it’s critical to look for ways of making money that aren’t purely about advertising or purely about subscription. When you rely too heavily on advertising, you end up with a temptation to put users under surveillance, to sell what you know about them to advertisers, which is unhealthy for society as a whole. But if you depend entirely on subscriptions and lock up your news only for paying readers, you lose your influence, your ability to help shape public debate. We’re starting to see public media models in some countries that rely on membership – they give special privileges for those who support a publisher, but they rely on a small number of members to make the content free for others. Finding models like this, that recognize the people who can support your work and give them special benefits, while letting your work have broad social influence, is a critical balance for news organizations.
A second, and maybe less obvious challenge. I said that it was a great time to be a reader because there’s so much to read, and a great time to be a writer, because there are so many places to share your writing. But certain kinds of writing are in very short supply. It has always been hard to find well-researched writing that criticizes powerful people and governments, what we call “accountability journalism”. It’s expensive to do, and often requires not just reporters but lawyers to make sure you’re able to publish what you find, and increasingly computer programmers to help you sort through piles of financial data or text. That’s not the only hard type of reporting – it’s incredibly difficult to get stories from certain parts of the world. When Boko Haram attacks in Baga State in Nigeria killed as many as 2000 people in January of this year, the world heard far more about a dozen people killed at the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. What was really disturbing is that even Nigerian newspapers did this – in the days after Charlie Hebdo and the Baga massacre, Nigerian papers paid more attention to the highly visible deaths in France than to invisible deaths closer to home. So it’s not just a matter of having more news – it’s a matter of getting the right news, getting the news we need.
What’s the right news? What’s the news we need?
To explain, I want to go back to Ghana’s hard-earned reputation for a free press and for fair elections. The economist Paul Collier warns that it’s possible to have elections that are free, fair and bad – these are elections where voters don’t decide based on the issues or based on the performance of those who are in office. Instead, we decide based on tribe, or based on who we think is likely to give us a job or other benefits. These free, fair and bad elections are pretty common in nations that have an electoral democracy, but don’t have the other institutions of an open society. If you have elections, but you don’t have a free press – as in Zimbabwe, for instance – it’s not hard to predict how those elections are going to turn out.
Journalism is a business, but it’s not just a business. It’s a profession, like medicine or law, which means it has a responsibility to society as a whole, not just to the bottom line. We need news that helps us take action as citizens. Sometimes that’s journalism that exposes corruption and holds powerful people responsible. But sometimes it’s journalism that creates a space for us to debate the world we want, the society we want to build. Sometimes it’s journalism that’s not afraid to take a stand, to advocate for great news ways to solve important social problems.
To be very clear, I’m not talking about what people usually demand when they ask media to be professional – they ask for it to be objective, which tends to mean that it strives for false balance, and that it amplifies the voices of powerful people. I’m asking for journalism to do something much harder and much braver – to ask the question of what news we need to be more powerful, more effective and better citizens. This is a place where Ghana has an opportunity to lead the region, the continent and the world. Ghana has the political climate to permit real debate, real disagreement about the way forward, where individuals and institutions can raise their voices about what they think needs to be done. We need journalism that’s fair, that looks to amplify voices we rarely hear from, that’s brave enough to advocate for new ideas that could change the world for the better. We need to make sure that Ghana’s free press and free and fair elections escape the trap of free, fair and bad – instead, we need media that helps make us more powerful as citizens.