HIGHWAY AFRICA 2021 SUMMIT CONFERENCE
The Promises And Perils Of Platformisation For Africa
In the past two decades, global technological platforms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, YouTube and Twitter have entered the business of news and of journalism of mainstream media, dramatically raising the stakes for economic and financial survival of traditional media (Mdlongwa, 2019).
Newspapers in particular had already been in financial distress because of several exogenous factors in the past few years. These include the 2007-2008 global financial crisis (Franklin, 2014; Picard, 2011a), which deprived them of critical advertising revenue that has sustained newspapers in the past 150 years (Picard, 2011a).
Also implicated in the newspapers’ siege (Witschge and Nygren, 2009) were other factors. These include digitalization – the compacting of large volumes of information and data that are transmitted electronically — and convergence, where the previous stand-alone industrial-age functions of telecoms, computing, broadcasting and media were merged by tech firms to amass audiences of billions to extend the platforms’ reach and impact in an increasingly networked world (Picard, 2011b).
For example, Google has for years been running its Accelerated Mobile Pages under which it allowed news firms to market their news on that platform in return for sharing advertising revenue that is made on those pages.
Similarly, Facebook used its News Feed and Apple its Apple News for the same purpose. The tech giants promised mainstream newspapers and broadcasts stations that they would get 70% of advertising revenues from these pages, while the tech firms would net 30%.
However, media scholars and newspaper editors have accused the tech companies of gobbling up to 60% of total online global advertising revenue of US$181 billion in 2016 alone (McDuling and Mason, 2017). This deprived newspapers in particular of life-saving revenue (Picard, 2011a). (See also Srnicek, 2017; and Nielsen and Ganter, 2018).
Mathew Ingram (2018:2), writing on what he described as ‘The Facebook Armageddon’, estimated that Facebook and Google would control 85 percent of the world’s total digital advertising market by the end of 2018. Myllylahti (2018) opined that media firms remained ‘trapped’ in an attention economy run by the two platforms.
In countries such as Australia, Germany and Britain, newspapers are arguing strongly for governmental intervention to tax the tech giants to pay for news which they are accused of pirating from newspapers (cf. Rusbridger, 2016). The tech giants have rejected the accusation, suggesting that they are, in fact, giving ‘old media’ greater reach and revenues.
What has the platformisation of the news media meant for African media and their journalists? Accurate statistics on the impact of platformisation on the media in Africa’s diverse 54 nations are not readily available, although scores of newspapers have either folded and retrenched staff or slashed the salaries of those who remain employed while they seek new business models to survive (Mdlongwa, 2019).
Elsewhere across the developed world, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost and hundreds of newspapers shuttered, partly as a result of the impact of digital and social media networks and of the tech giants (cf. Pew Research Centre, 2014; Maharidge, 2016). Franklin (2014:482) notes that daily newspapers in the U.S. shrunk from 1,611 in 1990 to 1,387 in 2009, and put the job losses in 2008 alone at 16,000 (ibid).
In the U.K. alone, more than media 5,000 jobs disappeared in the decade up to 2014 (Harding, 2015:6). In South Africa, at least 5,000 media jobs were lost in the past decade alone – effectively half of the editorial staffs in the entire country (Daniels, 2018:8).
The advent of the internet and its digital and social media cousins in the 1980s and 1990s transformed the news industry as more non-media actors took advantage of the fall of barriers of entry into the industry and established themselves as alternative news platforms.
Even ordinary individuals operating as ‘citizen journalists’ (e.g. during the 2004 Asian Tsunami; and the 2005 London bombings) who were ‘connected’ to the new media simultaneously ‘de-professionalised’ and ‘professionalised’ journalism and the media.
On one hand, they began to check on the accuracy and veracity of journalistic work of formally trained journalists, thus professionalising journalism and improving journalistic content. On the other hand, their entry into journalism without any training ‘democratised journalism’ by abolishing entry barriers into the profession, thus de-professionalising it (Witschge and Nygren, 2009).
In the din of the information overload and ‘news noise’ (Harding, 2015) that has followed, the value, utility, truthfulness and relevance of journalism itself has come under increasing scrutiny as the new information purveyors flooded the market with information, which at times proved to be disinformation, misinformation and even ‘fake news’.
Suddenly audiences could no longer easily discern truth from propaganda and disinformation in the so-called ‘post-truth era’, where most news is ‘free’ (Picard, 2011b).
It is in this environment of information over-abundance that the quest for survival of African media organisations and their journalisms is taking place at the start of a new decade and a new century. In particular, the forthcoming Highway Africa (HA) summit seeks to gain better and deeper insights and understandings on the impact of platformisation on Africa’s media.
As if the media’s troubles were not enough, the year 2020 rudely ushered in a debilitating global health pandemic, COVID-19 — the worst such pandemic in a century. Aside from its staggering human death toll, the pandemic accelerated the collapse of news media, forcing more media houses to close and retrench tens of thousands of media workers across the world (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2020).
Ironically, the pandemic, which Silverman (2020) has described as a ‘media extinction threat’, also simultaneously accelerated the uptake by traditional media of digital and social media in a stampede for economic and financial survival.
The 2021 summit conference of HA, the premier conference platform for African journalists and media scholars run by Rhodes University in South Africa, will take place under the backdrop of these tumultuous and debilitating events that confront mainstream media and its journalisms.
The conference will simultaneously take a wide and close look at the impacts of these environmental factors, particularly platformization, that are redefining the media and journalism landscapes in the ‘age of uncertainty and speed’ (Wajcman and Dodd, 2017).
The summit conference will seek to find workable practical solutions to some of these challenges and how media and journalism can exploit emerging potential opportunities, although their efforts may not be very successful because 60% of people in the developing world, particularly in Africa, have no access to the internet (Harding, 2015).
The conference will use a mix of journalism and media management tools, strategies and tactics that focus on adaptability, learning, renewal and innovation in times of rapid change. These, it is hoped, could allow some media firms that remain to experiment with a range of solutions, which include embracing mergers; diversification of revenue models; and experimenting with digital apps for urban and monied audiences.
The conference will also examine media and journalism theories, conceptual understandings and empirical research that speak to platformisation in Africa a, as well as the use of Big Data, and seek to draw best practice from digital media pioneers and innovation and creativity solutions in harnessing the emerging platform economy (Kung, 2008).
Daniels, G. (2018). Left out in the cold: Retrenched journalists pushed into the ‘gig economy’ with little institutional support. In State of the Newsroom 2018: Structured Unstructured, pages 17-26, Johannesburg: Wits Journalism, edited by Finlay, A.
Franklin, B. (2014). The Future of Journalism in an age of digital media and economic uncertainty. Journalism Practice, Vol. 8, No. 5, pages 469-487.
Harding, J. (2015). The Future of News. Available from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-bbb9e158-4a1b-43c7-8b3b-9651938d4d6a [Consulted on 9 November 2020).
Ingram, M. (2018). The Facebook Armageddon: The Social Network’s Increasing Threat to Journalism. Columbia Journalism Review, 17 August. Available from: https://www.cjr.org/special_report/facebook-media-buzzfeed.php
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McDuling, J. and Mason, M. (2016). How Google and Facebook’s trillion-dollar duopoly strangles the Internet. Available from: https://www.afr.com/business/media-and-marketing/advertising/how-google-and-facebooks-trillion-dollar-duopoly-strangles-the-internet-20170328-gv7zxi
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Pew Research. (2014). State of the News Media Review. Available from: http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2017/05/30142556/state-of-the-news-media-report-2014-final.pdf
Picard, R.G. (2011a). The Economics and Financing of Media Companies. Second Edition. New York: Fordham University Press.
Picard, R.G. (2011b). Digitization and Media Business Models. Open Society Media Program, pages 1-23.
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Rushbridger, A. (2016). Former Guardian editor: Facebook sucked up 20 million pounds of our online ad revenue last year. Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/alan-rusbridger-blames-facebook-guardian-digital-revenue-2016-9?IR=T
Silverman, C. (2020). The Coronavirus is a Media Extinction Event. Available from: https://www.editorandpublisher.com/stories/the-coronavirus-is-a-media-extinction-event,1385?
Srnicek, N. (2017). Platform Capitalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.
Wajcman, J. and Dodd, N. (2017). The Sociology of Speed: Digital, Organizational, and Social Temporalities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Witschge, T. and Nygren, G. (2009). Journalism: A Profession Under Pressure? Journal of Media Business Studies, 6 (1), pages 37-59.