Best known for edgy gonzo journalism and offbeat viral documentaries, Vice Media could not be further in tone and content from the stuffy, state-owned newspapers that hold sway across dozens of African countries.
In October, the doyen of millennial content producers announced that it would expand its alliance with African telecoms giant Econet by launching Kwesé Vice, an ambitious joint venture headquartered in Johannesburg. Working alongside offices in Nairobi and Lagos, Kwesé Vice promises to produce editorial and video content by the “best young creatives, journalists and filmmakers” in a bid to deliver “a fresh new voice for Africa’s diverse youth audiences”.
For traditional print publishers in Africa, the emergence of digitally native content providers and tech-savvy audiences represents both a compelling opportunity and a defiant challenge to long-established business models. For authoritarian political parties long used to a monopoly on information, the impact of social media, mass mobile access and editorial independence will prove increasingly disruptive.
Yet with millions of newspapers sold across the continent every day, experts caution against writing off a tenacious and diverse model that embraces bold independent publishers and state-controlled behemoths.
“The business model for newspapers in Africa has generally proved more resilient than elsewhere,” says veteran Namibian journalist Gwen Lister. “If one looks at the trends in the past few years, Europe and the US were affected negatively by a downturn in print far sooner than Africa’s media… however, in recent months, in Namibia for example, it appears as though the outlook is becoming more pessimistic. At present it looks like a ‘survival of the fittest’ type scenario is developing.”
Smaller Namibian newspapers, including The Villager and the Namibia Economist, have transitioned to online-only platforms. The story is much the same across swathes of Southern Africa, where a difficult economic environment has eaten into the sales and advertising revenues that underpin industry profitability.
According to data from South Africa’s Audit Bureau of Circulations, daily newspaper circulation fell from 1,332,320 in Q1 2016 to 1,211,887 in Q1 2017, with KwaZulu-Natal’s Mercury and the Pretoria News the only dailies to register improvements. Weekend papers fared worse, shedding around 190,000 copies.
The migration to digital is a contributor to this decline. Bandwidth use across Africa increased 72% between 2015 and 2016, according to the International Telecommunications Union. The number of mobile subscribers in Africa with access to the mobile internet tripled to 300m in 2015, according to GSMA, with an additional 250m subscribers expected to join by 2020.
US social media giants are starting to supplant newspapers as a primary source of information – Facebook estimates that it has some 170m users in Africa. “One can and should be critical of the digital divide, but there’s no doubt that there’s been a strong uptake in social media – Facebook, Twitter and web-based mobile platforms like WhatsApp are all very strong and have risen quite remarkably. They’ve provided outlets for political and social commentary,” says Herman Wasserman, professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town.
This availability of information from outside officially sanctioned channels is gradually diminishing the monopoly once enjoyed by powerful proprietors and politically connected editors. Independent publishers are increasingly operating in spaces beyond legal restrictions, disseminating their stories to wider audiences at home and in the diaspora and adopting new storytelling techniques.
“What we are seeing now is the impact of these alternative sources of communication, citizens creating their own enclaves where they communicate outside the censorship of the political elite and corporate influence. The influence of newspapers in terms of shaping political discourse has been impacted. You see a lot of experimentation, trial and error in terms of digital models that are being implemented,” says Hayes Mabweazara, an expert in African media at Falmouth University.
Governments on the continent are unprepared to give up that control lightly. Even while publishers have been making the most of online freedoms, governments have cracked down on print media.
The Tanzanian government has shut down two critical newspapers in the last four months, including weekly MwanaHalisi – accused of inciting violence – and Mawio, a newspaper that linked former presidents to alleged mining corruption. Only five African countries are in a “satisfactory situation” according to the World Press Freedom Index, with the majority ranked as “difficult”.
The backlash towards print has expanded into the online sphere, with Cameroon subject to a 93-day internet blackout earlier this year. “In South Africa we’ve seen the rise of fake news and twitter bots – as well as the white monopoly capital campaign by [disgraced UK PR firm] Bell Pottinger. That’s an example of how digital media is not a panacea for state or elite media capture… we should not give up the fight for mainstream media to be free,” says UCT’s Wasserman.
Despite the menacing environment, both state and independent media are carving out new roles. The majority of independent and state newspapers now have parallel online operations, with many expanding into video, viral content and social media.
In highly restrictive Zimbabwe, the state-owned Herald newspaper allows online comments below articles, a subtle acknowledgement that readers are now consumers with significant agency. Yet there are several reasons why experts refuse to call time on print.
The profit motive is a secondary concern for many state-owned newspapers, meaning that gradual declines in revenue are unlikely to halt publication. Meanwhile, internet penetration, while markedly improved, remains low in Africa compared to Europe and Asia, bolstering reader and advertiser loyalty to newspapers. Perhaps most significantly, publishers have yet to find a way to make digital pay.
“The whole process of monetising digital has been a challenge in Africa. We’ve seen a shift in terms of advertisers demonstrating a willingness to advertise online, but you can’t compare it to print ads. Print is still king when it comes to profits,” says Mabweazara.
All of which makes for an unpredictable African media environment that is fluid, competitive, and balanced precariously between freedom and restriction. “I look at the African communication environment as an ecosystem,” says Mabweazara. “Within that you have state controlled press and multiple alternative forms of information coming together in a richer, holistic environment. It’s up to readers to engage, speak back and read between the lines – that’s what democracy is about.”