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Editorial decisions, economic decisions: The funders’ role in West African media

Nonso Jideofor's picture

While independent journalists are bastions in support of good government, “independence” is not always an available choice. In Nigeria, for example, in a highly competitive job market that underpays and has little respect for journalists, many sway their coverage according to explicit and implicit political pressures and are sometimes expected to take bribes. One member of the media explained it this way:   
 
“If there’s a cholera outbreak from contaminated water sources and the Ministry of Water Resources is doing an event, reporters will cover the event and not bother about the cholera outbreak itself. This is not because they don’t care; [editorial choices] have mostly become economic decisions. The Ministry will pay for the event to be covered, that is how the system works. You aren’t supposed to pay for news but you can pay to make news.”
 
In a media landscape like this one, where economic and editorial decisions are in conflict, international donors can provide vital financial support to independent media organizations, empowering them to hold governments accountable. But as my team at Reboot detailed in a report published this summer, providing strategic support requires a holistic approach, beyond program funding.    
 
Because of its flourishing media ecosystem, Nigeria is a powerful regional case study for how funders might take such an approach. Even though Nigeria formally ended state-owned media monopolies when it deregulated broadcasting in 1992, the government maintains informal control of the news through political patronage, corrupt practices, and direct threats and violence. This is true both at the federal level as well as subnational; state and local governments, to varying degrees, use these tools to bend media coverage.
 
Examples can be found across West Africa, such as in Ghana, where we learned that the practice of purchasing coverage is so widespread it has entered common parlance under the word “soli,” or solidarity money. In this landscape, independent media struggles to be truly independent.  
 
Nevertheless, the rise of the digital age is democratizing coverage control in West Africa. Citizens are breaking news and analyzing stories through social media. Their voices are transforming media—upending the traditional media models and inspiring new ones—and demanding that media uncover corruption and hold leaders accountable. This citizen-powered media landscape has in turn pushed the government to become more responsive to public discourse, potentially driving more citizen engagement.

In Nigeria, this virtuous cycle between citizens, media, and government became clear in the historic 2015 elections, when citizens, like activist Japheth Omojuwa, used Twitter and other social media to share photographs of and comment on polling results. By building trust in the process through transparency, their participation has been credited with helping oust an incumbent president for the first time in the nation’s history. In Ghana, Penplusbytes, a civic technology non-profit, is seeking to channel similar citizen energy by teaming up with Citi FM to interview government officials on-air about campaign promises and public spending commitments, and then hold those officials accountable for their words. In these ways, citizen energy holds great potential for greater transparency and accountability. Yet, on the whole, it remains largely untapped.
 
The changing landscape attracted the attention of Omidyar Network, which supports innovations to strengthen the volume, quality, and sustainability of independent media around the world. To inform their evolving investment strategy in West Africa, Omidyar Network asked Reboot to help them better understand the region’s independent media landscape. We used ethnographic and user-centered approaches to surface voices of citizens, journalists, media professionals, and government officials in Nigeria and Ghana—countries chosen for their dynamic media markets to serve as case studies. We heard stories of media innovators creating new avenues for independence, and the barriers that still impede them. We captured these in our report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa.”
 
We found that funders can play a big role in helping independent media conquer these remaining challenges—and there are two key opportunities that are ripe for their support. The first is in boosting citizen engagement: The ability of media to influence governance hinges on how well it can engage and activate an audience. Media must ignite public dialogue, incorporate and amplify citizen voices, and motivate audiences to take political action. To do this, they need a foundational understanding of what makes their audience tick and then develop targeted editorial strategies to drive them to action.
 
Funders have an opportunity to fill this gap: They can support media in developing foundational market research, can provide technical assistance in developing robust engagement metrics, and can help build collaborations between media and civil society to better target content for political opportunities. This kind of strategic support can amplify funders’ impact in citizen-driven accountability.  
 
The second opportunity addresses the fact that journalists do not have sustainable sources of independent financing. Balancing commercial success with content integrity remains an enormous challenge for both established organizations and start-ups. Success depends on developing rigorous business models with diverse sources of income that can withstand not only market but also political pressures. Funders can help media get closer to long-term sustainability by providing investments that are responsive to media’s core operational needs (instead of funding for specific issues) and that are tailored to their stage of growth. In this way, funders can empower media with the freedom to pursue the open and self-directed exploration and experimentation that is so important to successful innovation.
 
I hope you will read more about these opportunities in our report, “People-Powered Media Innovation in West Africa,” which expands on the challenges and opportunities within this dynamic media landscape. Reboot is now working to put these ideas into practice. Serving as a bridge between journalists, media organizations, funders, and governance practitioners, we are seeking to integrate our learnings across the independent media ecosystem, experiment with new models, and advance independent media and good governance around the world.
 

All Photos Credited to Reboot
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