KAMPALA – About two weeks ago, in the run-up to the World Press Freedom Day commemoration, a young lady who has worked on local television, Ms Sheila Gashumba, sparked off a debate about (poor) pay in the media in Uganda. Gashumba’s lamentations stirred a hornet’s nest, if the debate that followed was anything to go by.
However, the debate did not go far enough. Many focused on sharing personal experiences in the media, while some decided to focus on the person of Gashumba. Few attempted to offer solutions to the problem, while media houses whose pay packets were the subject of the debate opted to stay out of it altogether.
I will share my own experiences here and there, but only as a way to try and answer the question that hasn’t received as much attention as it should have during that debate. That question being, “How do you solve a problem like poor salaries for journalists?”
I started dreaming about becoming a journalist when I was in primary three or four, thanks to my Dad who would come home with a copy of the local Ateso newspaper, Etop, and ask me to read for him the news therein. He also started each day by listening to BBC radio and Radio Uganda (he intended to find out news about the war in Teso at the time, but was inadvertently planting a seed in me). Eventually, I would begin collecting newspaper cut-outs of articles and pictures I loved and glue them to a cardboard using porridge.
When someone starts dreaming about a career at such a young age and then goes on to live their dream, the issue of how much they earn is not a big deal. It was just a privilege to have been able to step into a newsroom and do something you’d fantasized about and pursued your entire life.
Yet, the reality of life later hits you in the face and you begin to ask questions. In the newsroom, our senior colleagues often reminded us that journalists must endeavour to place the public interest – and the pursuit of truth – ahead of any personal aspirations. They said that if you intended to become rich, then you were in the wrong profession.
Well and good. But what happens when the media industry itself is not financially grounded enough to enable you to achieve its noble pursuits? I began to ask that and other questions when I would want to go to the countryside to report on a story but my editors would tell me that the company I worked for did not have the money to finance my trip.
I began to ask questions – and find answers – about how to develop alternative sources of funding to enable me to continue to do the kind of journalism that I wanted to do. Thankfully, I was able to put some of those ideas to practice – and they opened doors that would otherwise have remained closed. Since then, I have kept thinking – and reading – about the different ways both individual journalists and their media organizations can widen their resource generation pools. I outline and analyse each of them below.
1. Journalists Unite!
The saying that “united we stand, divided we fall” is not just good English. There is a lot of substance it is. A journalism fraternity that is not united makes it easy for media houses to manipulate individual journalists, many of who enter the profession as freelancers, moreover while still wet around the ears. Because their initial pay is so low, such journalists are playing catch up with their bills for the rest of their profession.
The viable option here is for journalists to come together and form strong unions through which they can negotiate for fairly much-more improved base earnings and streamline the operations in their profession. Media houses know the power of a united journalism fraternity so they are unlikely to back it. In one of the media houses that I worked for, there was a clause in the employment contract that banned an employee from joining any organized workers’ union. I still have a copy of that contract for posterity. I protested against the move but as a lone voice, my remonstration was like a fart in the wind.
2. Diversify revenue streams
This goes to both individual journalists and media organizations. A journalist’s pay, even at the most senior editorial level in most organizations, is a pittance compared to what is paid in other professions. What the media offers is a level of flexibility that allows one to juggle several income-generating activities in the air. So if you have the talent that attracts international gigs, then draw a strategy to get as many of them as possible. If you can write a proposal to seek grant funding then, by all means, go for it. There are many opportunities such as these (https://gijn.org/gijn-africa-funding-and-grants/) or these (https://gijn.org/new-sources-of-media-funding-on-the-covid-19-pandemic/) + plus so many more out there. I share them daily on the GIJN Africa’s Twitter account, @gijnAfrica, and on GIJN Africa’s Facebook page GIJN Africa – Global Investigative Journalism Network.
If you don’t, then work towards developing other income-generating activities in your village or around Kampala. To sit around the newsroom and depend on the meagre newsroom salary is to sit on a financial time bomb. Eventually, it could go off at some point and you could be part of the collateral damage.
For media organizations, there should really be a department in each company that is focused on innovating and developing alternative revenue streams. And such a department should have full-time liaisons drawn from each section of the organization including, and perhaps especially, the editorial department. Millions of potential income-generating ideas die out in the editorial department because the editors are too busy, too controlling, or even too self-conceited to think outside the box.
3. Decentralize decision-making, ownership of media products
Media products have a very short shelf-life. That’s even more so now during the new media era than ever before. A story that a newspaper packages as its lead the night before could have taken a new twist by the time the said newspaper is placed on newsstands in the morning. And since consumers have the advantage of reading the latest information on social media, there could be less incentive to purchase the newspaper – or even consume the same item on broadcast platforms.
That then calls for fast decision-making in a media organization, which is unfortunately not possible especially in the bigger media outlets in our country which now have layers upon layers of decision-makers. Few institutions in Uganda today have more meetings than media organizations. And yet many of the resolutions arrived at those meetings are rarely implemented.
What would help here is for media organizations to give a bit more autonomy to individual editorial teams to make decisions. I recall that the best performing products in the media organizations that I’ve worked for were those that were initiated by particular editors who then nurtured such products to a point where they took a life of their own. Take the example of the Harvest Money magazine that Joshua Kato has nurtured at The New Vision to a point where it now has different income-generating streams, including an annual festival.
The model here would be for media organizations to make senior journalists partners in the business and encourage them to turn the product entrusted to them into a separate income-generator (of course while continuing to provide the information that the serves the public good). Many would be amazed by what their journalists would do if trusted just a bit more and given a little more autonomy to turn-around their respective products.
4. Creat non-profit arms for your media businesses
It is said that journalism is both a business and a public service. So why do media organizations mainly focus on generating their income from the sale of advertising space and, in the case of newspapers, copy sales? Why are media entities not working as hard to generate income from non-profit financing?
By now, every serious media organization in Uganda should have a registered non-profit arm through which they can lobby directly for funding from international organizations to share information that’s not necessarily going to entice people to buy the paper but is for the public good. Media organizations with health sections and non-profit arms, for instance, would then be able to position themselves to join the group of malaria, TB and HIV NGOs to disseminate information to the public. What is happening at the moment is that NGOs receive all sorts of money that should be going directly to the media and then offer only a fraction to media organizations.
5. Start centres for targeted journalism
There are several options to non-profit funding, one of which is establishing centres for targeted journalism such as investigative journalism, data journalism, solutions journalism, health journalism, open-source journalism, etc.
When I recognised that I could not do the kind of journalism I wanted due to funding constraints from one of my employers, I decided to set up a semi-independent centre for investigative journalism. My argument was that I would need to have a bit of autonomy in managing some aspects of the centre, but with the established media organization I worked for a partner. The partner would provide us with a home, a platform for publishing our investigations and part-salaries. We would then work to source for funding that would enable us to do the investigations that our parent media organization would otherwise not have been able to and to pay for the other half of our salaries.
It was designed as a win-win arrangement. But my employer would not entertain the idea. They wanted me to give them the rights to the idea so that they would own it. I declined. In the end, I went with the idea to another media organization that embraced it and gave me the room to experiment. We were able to secure a good number of investigative journalism grants, to do a good number of investigations and to partner with a pan-African investigative journalism collective to do several cross-border stories. The work that we were able to do courtesy of that idea helped me secure a scholarship for my Masters’ studies, and it was also the basis for me to secure my current pan-African journalism job.
The New Vision, for instance, has had a long-standing feature called “Spotlight, which they use to market their investigations. That product is a brand already, which can be registered as a non-profit investigations arm of the company for purposes sourcing of funding for funds to support investigative journalism. It can then be combined with the murder investigations feature that’s published every Sunday and developed into a strong unit. I have suggested this to some editors at Vision Group but I am not sure if they are keen to take it up.
6. Media houses unite!
It is not only journalists that need to unite. Media houses need to do so too. In Uganda, however, there has always been an adversarial relationship between media organizations that sometimes degenerates into petty fights. In the end, all the media organizations involved in such fights lose. No one comes out unscathed.
However, if media houses operated with as a united force, they would all stand to gain. Otherwise, why do we need each print media organization to have a gigantic printing press that never operates at full capacity? How about coming together to should printing costs and then sharing the profits from the printing business? Why do we have The New Vision, Daily Monitor, Red Pepper, etc, sending separate transport vans every night to distribute newspapers across the country? How about coming together to should those costs? How many more copies do you sell compared to your competition if you send your newspapers one hour, or even two, before them?
The other advantage of coming together is that media organizations can then work as cohesive units to lobby for funding, either from non-profit foundations or advertises. In Nigeria, for instance, nine media institutions came together to lobby for funding as a unit. Each organization had to draw up a plan stating the area where they had a competitive advantage and would offer a unique service in the fight against corruption. They sent a joint proposal to the MacArthur Foundation and were offered a grant of $6.3 million or about Shs 24 billion. Yes, true story! (https://www.macfound.org/press/press-releases/macarthur-awards-63-million-journalism-and-media-grants-advance-accountability-and-anti-corruption-efforts-nigeria/)
What stops Vision Group, Nation Media Group – Uganda, Nile Broadcasting Services and others from joining up with the African Centre for Media Excellence, Media Challenge Initiative, Makerere University Mass Communications Department (or Uganda Christian University), etc, and then working out a joint funding proposal that can be supported by international organizations like the MacArthur Foundation that are keen to support investigative journalism?
7. Seek for international collaborations
At the start of this article, I mentioned that a journalist can seek opportunities to write or produce content for international news organizations. This avenue has opened up more than ever before for both individual journalists and organizations. In the past, international media organizations would fly in their reporters to do stories and then return home. Or they would send a foreign correspondent to work in Uganda. However, the dynamics have changed. Today, the likes of BBC (through BBC Africa Eye), etc, are looking for journalists and media organizations to collaborate with. They provide the funding for a local media organization to do an investigation, which the two then jointly publish. NBS Television and investigative journalist Solomon Serwanjja have been beneficiaries of this kind of arrangement. Currently, the organization I work for, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), is helping journalists around the world to pitch their story ideas to different broadcasters around the world through this platform (https://airtable.com/shrR9gyirxJr8GooV). Do you have a story idea? Go on, pitch it!
8. Innovate! Innovate! Innovate!
There are of course many other options that journalists and media organizations in Uganda can use to shore up their financial positions. I have only scratched the surface here. Many much smarter people have even better ideas. However, what we lack is the mentorship to show us some of these avenues, the unity of purpose to pursue them together, and the limited flexibility at the decision-making level of many of our media institutions that limits the scope of what we can do. Of course, sometimes we are just plain scared of the unknown and, in the process, we don’t explore (we are all guilty here, including yours truly).
However, when I was starting out as a journalist, my editors used to say there will always be space for a good story. I will tweak that a bit and say, there is always room for an innovative media idea or organization, as my friend Abaas Mpindi and his team at the Media Challenge Initiative have shown.
So while we bemoan the poor pay within our media organizations, I believe that we can also turn the challenges that the industry is facing and turn them into opportunity through innovation, sheer gutsy effort and unity of purpose. It may not make individual journalists or media organizations the richest in this country, but it will at least give us a better financial cushion to do the journalism work that most journalists grow up dreaming about and are still passionate about to our core.
Benon Herbert Oluka is a Ugandan multimedia journalist, a co-founder of The Watchdog, a centre for investigative journalism in his home country, and a member of the African Investigative Publishing Collective.