Harnessing new information technology for Africa's independent media: plant the crops at the start of the rainy season.
Paper presented to conference on "The sustainability of the independent media in Southern Africa", the Media Institute of Southern Africa, October 6-8, 1997, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.
Africa and its media need not be victims of the information age. With the help of new information technologies, numerous opportunities exist for independent media to cut their production costs, add value to their product, expand their markets and consolidate their independence.
To exploit these opportunities requires investment in acquiring the technologies, in understanding their promises and their pitfalls, and in acquiring the skills to use them to the fullest. By championing the new technologies on the continent, journalists can assist in their dissemination to other sectors of society, including governments, and in this way help to counter the marginalisation of Africa on the global scale.
This paper begins with some general comments on the new information technologies, locating them within the framework of globalisation and the information society. It discusses how this is impacting on the media in advanced industrialised countries, and then moves on to the implications for Africa's independent media. It outlines 21 key benefits that the new technologies can have, and outlines what is required for this scenario to be realised.
2. Globalisation and the information age
History speaks of different epochs of humanity, stone-age, iron-age, bronze-age ... and now we have what is called the information age. What these designations highlight is the character of the key tools at a given moment. In the information age, the key means of production is information. Of course information by itself is not really central: it is information that is reliable and relevant - in other words, useful knowledge. A currently fashionable phrase is "Global Knowledge for Development (GKD)", which highlights one specific relevance for knowledge. The phrase also highlights a particular realm of knowledge with the word "Global".
This is significant because while one can conceive of several different and separate stone-age societies, there is only one, single, information society - a global one. Thabo Mbeki likes to talk about the Information Community, rather than the Information Society, which helps to highlight the indivisibility of Global Knowledge Networks - as long as one remembers that the Information Community, like any community, harbours inequalities, hierarchies, contradictions and even conflicts.
To talk of the Information Age therefore is inextricably bound up with talking about globalisation. If you pause for a moment and consider media and communications alone, you can see just how globalised the systems have become. There are, for example, the current factors at work impacting on most media in Africa in one way or another:
Global trade, and investment, in media:
Global trends impacting on media:
The era of colonisation and of world wars gave major impetus to international communications. Naturally, within Africa, communications has been a factor since the evolution of humanity. One only has to think of the diversity of languages, of the rock art and hieroglyphics, of the cultures of dance, song, story telling and drum that highlight the rich history of internal, self-contained communications on the continent.
The era of mass communications, and of "reporting" in the Western sense of the word, in Africa dawned along with missionaries, traders, colonial conquest and nation-state creation, centralised administrations and transport infrastructure, the postal service, time zoning, telegraphy, wireless and the like. The picture of reporter Henry Morton Stanley, seeking another white man in Africa, one David Livingstone, comes to mind.
The legacy of this era was one that saw the continent have its traditional communications systems underdeveloped, and develop instead an extroverted mass communications system, by-and-large, with linkages extending outwards. This stood in sharp contrast to the lack of internal mass media connections and mirrored, of course, political and economic structures. The exceptions were the settler media, which catered to local interests in a specific sector of course, and the nationalist media which serviced the rising independence movements. In more recent decades, the settler media has declined or been nationalised (and is slowly changing in South Africa); the nationalist media became government media; and a new wave of independent pro-democracy media has arisen. However, all these communication networks are characterised by substantial integration into international networks, concerning content, technology, styles, and so on.
These trends are illustrative of the worldwide experiences of globalisation and modernity, which have so powerfully enveloped even the most traditional societies. The two developments have, it has been argued, been pushed by two forces: the unleashing of economics from the constraints of family, tribe, feudal system etc, to expand in a rampant manner around the globe; and the freeing of sexuality from similar bonds of family, religion, class, hierarchy.
Fredericks writes: "What is it about Western (and particularly American) media products that has such a widespread influence over the world's peoples?" He answers: "Western culture seems to exploit essential human values, appeal to basic human emotions, and use universal modes of expression." Globalisation lies in this power, amongst others. The counter to this are the values found to pervade Western television: individualism, elitism, racism, materialism, adventurism, conservation, conformism, self-defeatism, authoritarianism, romanticism and aggression. It is hard to speculate which of these appeal to individuals in Africa, but it is true that much foreign media exhibiting these does win a voluntary following on the continent.
What is clear, then, is that globalisation and the internationalisation of communications go hand in hand. It is also clear that a kneejerk rejection of these phenomena, along the lines of whining about Western cultural imperialism, is not enough. The point is that global communications are not just a problem; they are also an opportunity - and not least the new information technologies that have arisen within this context in recent years. "Africa must not miss this revolution," is the call of Dr Abdou Latif Coulibaly, dean of the Institute for Information Science and Communications in Senegal (Highway Africa, 9 September, 1997, p7).
The Information Society is gathering pace, and inequalities within it are exacerbating. The gap between information rich and information poor widens daily. We know that even the approximately 100 year-old technology of the telephone is not adequately present in Africa, where there are 12 million lines amongst a population of 700 million in the sub-Saharan countries.
Yet, the media, as the number one institution standing at the interface between the info rich and info poor, needs its journalists to be the most information-rich of all, if there is to be any bridge over the great divide. As Roland Stanbridge, director of the New Media Lab at Rhodes University, says: "Even if the majority of people in Africa do not have access to the Internet, it can be used by those few who have access for the benefit of communities." (Highway Africa, 9 September, 1997, p3).
3. The new technologies:
There is often an assumption that the new information technologies refer to the Internet. It is worth taking a step back, however. Comments Nkopane Maphiri, of South Africa's National Community Radio Forum: "New technology is only new to people who know the old technologies. Most people don't even know these old technologies." This is a good point, and even amongst Internet-literate individuals, what is new one month is quite literally old the next, such is the speed of technological innovation. What is needed therefore is a more abstract definition of what distinguishes the new from the old media technologies, and therefore what differentiates the Information Age and the Information Revolution from its predecessor, the Industrial Revolution.
Internet guru Nicholas Negroponte has summed up the key factor here in the title of a book he published two years ago: "Being digital". What this means for him is the difference between atoms and bits. Atoms are the stuff of physics and physicality, while bits are electronic pulses. A newspaper is made up of atoms, a Internet publication consists only of bits. What's critical is that atoms are laborious to copy, expensive to transport, and hard if not impossible to tamper with. In contrast, a digital code can be copied instantly into a replica millions of times over, shunted around the globe (and into space) at near real-time speeds, and can be mixed and matched at will. A newspaper has to be printed many times, trucked around vast distances, and at best cut and pasted into a scrapbook. A digital publication can be copied in incomparable volumes, disseminated through networks of telephone lines or through the airwaves, be linked to other kinds of data - be they text, audio or visual, and be easily customisable.
Add to this picture, the networking of bits, and you have the ingredients of the Information Age. There is a quantum leap in terms of how information can be utilised as a resource in terms of its archiving, flexibility, searchability, and its flow, compared to what was possible under previous information technologies. There is indeed a qualitative difference.
So new information technologies then may be understood as digital technologies, and especially those that link to networking. We have been familiar with computers for quite some years now, and they are the backbone of new technologies. We have been using their bits to help us produce our atoms, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
What we're talking about, however, as the 21st century draws nigh, is also to use their bits to produce other bits at ever greater levels of productivity. This encompasses the use of computers, yes, but also of digital imaging systems, ranging from digital cameras without film which store images as bits on a computer chip which can instantly be downloaded into a computer, to scanning technologies which convert the hard copy atoms in typed or printed documents into the binary sequence of digits of electronic text. It further encompasses the linkage of other systems to the computer: notably the radio, the telephone and the television. There are digital and non-linear editing systems for radio and television taking hold in many places nowadays, there are now technologies that enable you to talk to a microphone into your computer and converse with a person who has a telephone at the other end of the world. There are also technologies that convert audio speech into text stored in a computer, and that translate written words into speech - in a range of accents. There are technologies that combine audio, text, graphics and video, into multi-media packages as are evident in the kind of CD-roms that go beyond purely musical content.
What you begin to see from this is that what have traditionally been separate mass media, are now moving towards a point of intersection, where the digital data from the one are cross-linked to the digital data of another. The evolving model of media publishing in advanced industrial countries is thus towards database publishing. This means, for example, a newspaper company resolving that it is in the business of collecting and circulating information through a range of outlets, rather than being confined to only putting that information down as ink on paper. What makes the evolution into a multiple media, and also multimedia, possible is the common digital format that all the information is coming to share, be it text, sound or image. There are major implications for journalists' working environments and workpractices here - such as re-skilling, multi-skilling, copyright, heightened competition in an environment that is becoming information-overloaded, ethics, interactivity with audiences, and so on.
That this process is an unstoppable juggernaut cannot be denied. At the level of simply putting print newspapers online, the percentage of US dailies on the Internet rose from 37 in 1995, to 87 in 1996. Many of these are not only extending print publishing to online publishing, but to ventures in radio, television and CD-rom.
As part of these changes to the input and the output sides of media businesses, US journalists are increasingly using new technology in the form of the Internet. A recent study of 636 US editors (Ross & Middleberg) found that:
i. 87% of their journalists have Net access
One of the spin-offs of this is that there is a trend where news librarians no longer keep and find press clips, but become news researchers working in close collaboration with reporters from conception to execution of a story. There is also the development of Intranets, where journalists (but not the outside public) have fast access to an electronic archive, an online style-guide, information about their remaining days of leave or their pension contribution projections, etc. Then there is the development of "virtual newsrooms", where no one needs to actually come into the office any longer: instead they telecommute, with associated savings in travel time and office accommodation.
This may sound a million miles away to many African journalists, for whom HTML means not Hyper-text Markup Language (coding necessary to publish on the World Wide Web realm of the Internet), but Hand-to-mouth living. Yet think for a moment about what it means. It means that elsewhere in the world, your counterparts and their societies are benefiting increasingly from incredibly rich combinations of information - whether for the purposes of business, health, development, politics, education, entertainment, religion, etc. They will use these resources to develop their media and their societies. They will also use these resources to step up the competition with you for the time and attention of your own audiences.
Can you afford not to extract from these technologies, trends and reservoirs, a number of elements of benefit to yourself and your society?
I would not like to be seen to be suggesting that a critical approach is unnecessary. There are enormous questions about how this aspect of globalisation - developed in one part of the world - applies to other parts. Technologies may be inappropriate, the content and culture that goes with these may also be inappropriate. Yet just because something arose somewhere else, and was not produced by our own societies, does not mean that we should not consume it - critically. Perhaps, I am sounding like Eve, persuading Adam to take of the apple, but I believe that if such consumption can help our own production, then indeed we have an obligation to explore this.
4. Twenty-one reasons to use digital technologies
Digital technologies can have at least three benefits for African journalists: make savings, add value to the editorial product, and connect to new markets. These arguments are, I hope, useful for you to persuade your managers and owners, (and if you are the manager/owner), why it is worth spending some money on digital technologies. These benefits are evident in the following:
4.1 The delights of digital editing:
If you are not using computers for wordprocessing, layout, radio editing or TV editing, this is your first priority. You recoup the investment in saved production time, enhanced product (eg. More soundbites in your radio work; spell-checked copy in written articles), and by acquiring the basic platform to exploit all other new information technologies. Add in some computer memory, a fast modem, and some software, and you're ready to roll.
4.2 The efficiencies of Email:
- Email saves the cost and time of sending faxes, (alternatively send
very cheap international faxes using email).
4.3 Your interests in imaging technology:
Scanning documents saves labour time in inputting them, and digital cameras save time and materials in darkroom processing. Both of these free up staff time to concentrate on more valuable activities. (Digitised photos can be distributed electronically almost as easily as text - meaning you can sell pictures internationally - see below).
4.4. Sound and sight: Netphones and video-eyes
If you're near the high-end in terms of your technology and your bandwidth, give serious thought about the savings you might make in international phone calls and travel. Digitised audio can also be sold and circulated over the Internet.
4.5 Getting information: the capabilities of CD-Rom:
Getting a collection of CD-Roms provides you with a wealth of ready reference materials (text through to multimedia), that are easily searchable, and easily copied into your medium (copyright permitting).
4.6 Keep up-to-date:
- Regularly check out relevant online publications in your field, and
use programmes like URL-minder to alert you to their updates.
4.7 Getting ready-made stories: the online goldmine:
Save staff time to do justice to local stories, by helping to fill your
newshole with the best of global reports that you republish:
4.8 Finding contributors online:
- Find Africans abroad, using people-finder databases on the Internet,
and solicit articles.( www.four11.com, www.whowhere.com,www.iaf.net). If
you don't know who you are looking for, try type in typical national
surnames, into either these databases, or use www.dejanews.com to search
4.9 Getting story material online:
- run a column of the daily headlines of key media around the world.
To find factual information, such as for backgrounders on visiting
4.11 Find pictures and audio
- www.picture.net is a good starting point, though its photos are not
free. But if you want free pictures of government or business leaders, try
their sites, typing www.NAMEOFCOUNTRY.gov or www.NAMEOFCOMPANY.com (or
4.12 Seeking software and support:
Getting online means you have a world of software libraries free -
everything from accounting to personal planners to Internet browsers.
There is also a mass of help, including technical help, online.
4.13 Reselling your info to new markets: serve the online diaspora.
Locate nationals living abroad, and offer them email info at a price.
4.14 Earn revenue by match-making:
Find locals who want to reach nationals abroad, and offer them a platform at a price. A Bangladeshi paper does this by advertising sweethearts for nationals in the diaspora, but there are airline companies, national foods exporters, etc.
4.15 Get new outlets for freelance or contract services:
Find media specialising in topics you are covering, and market to them (eg. Business Day in South Africa is seeking business news from the continent).
4.16 Sell to specialist newsagencies abroad:
- for example, Africa News Service, (www.africanews.org)
4.17 Make a pitch for picture power:
Sell photos by displaying them on a website and sending as email attachments.
4.18 Revive the dead: develop a digital archive.
Keep your information stored and sell it to commercial databases like FT-profile or Dialog, and get paid royalties for its use.
4.19 Sell Internet access.
At the most basic level, this means operating a kind of "Internet cafe" - perhaps for university students or businesses - during downtime when your staff do not need to use the connectivity. In more advanced forms, this means become a fully-fledged ISP (Internet Service Provider). There are alternatives in-between, where for instance, a medium goes into partnership with an independent service provider which undertakes all the work of installation and customer service, but where the medium adds its branding and its audience reach. If you publish on the web, selling access can be a way of channelling people's access to the general web, via your own site as default homepage for them.
4.20 Be the beating heart of a digital country.
This is very often likely to lose money at least in the short to medium term, even in the advanced industrialised countries. To put content on the web requires a strategy that encompasses the conversion of data to web-code (HTML), promotion and marketing of the site, maintenance and servicing of users of the site, and evaluating the traffic. Revenue flows are diverse: a survey of 82 online editors in the USA revealed the total stream as divided into the following proportions:
34% revenue from display ads
What is not classified is the promotional benefit to the medium by publishing online. It may be hard to put a monetary revenue on this, but it is something that may certainly contribute to other revenue-generating activities. For instance, it has been found that putting a newspaper online often has the effect of stimulating sales of its print edition, unlike what one might otherwise expect. It is also the case that to publish online is to demonstrate vividly that a media company is forward looking and dynamic, which has spin-offs in terms of audiences and advertisers. For the Zambian Post, publishing on the Net also proved valuable in terms of generating solidarity from an international community of Internet users at a time of repression. This may, therefore, be a prudent investment from a political point of view.
Be warned, however, the potential at this stage to make money out of web publishing, especially with free access, is not high. This is not a reason why one should not do it, although of course if it is done at a loss, something else will need to subsidize it. Fortunately, most of the costs of content generation are already being covered by the core-operation of the medium, and the marginal costs of putting the same information online (given that it is already often digitalised somewhere in the process) are not exorbitant.
4.21. Become the heart of a digital country.
This opportunity entails extending the medium's horizon way beyond its current news character, and into the meta-information business. In this model, the medium becomes the gateway to all online information about a country - to its online tourist information, business information, legislation, news, people. Money to be made here includes setting up commercial services to design and service sites of stakeholders who do not have capacity, but who want to go online, and to charge an advertising fee to link them to your one-stop-shop. There is also other advertising to be gained should the traffic be high and of interest to particular players (eg. Airlines, exporters). This model entails partnerships and alliances with many other parties, and requires a quantum leap from the mindset of existing media activities.
7. Conclusion: pitfalls and promises.
Email has been around Misa for quite some time, but I do not believe it is being used to its full effect. For a start, is there a culture yet, whereby individuals check their email regularly? And do they know how to send multiple messages and how to attach long documents or audio/picture files? Can you customise your programme to set up a list of multiple recipients with a single message, or put settings on to confirm receipt of a message? How about filters and folders, so that an information management system can be devised?
If these are some of the issues to do with email, then the same is writ large when it comes to more complex operations like identifying newsgroups and listservs, searching their archives, setting postings to digest form or temporarily suspended, and unsubscribing. When it comes to other Internet tools, like FTP, or browsing, the same matters apply. Do you know how to configure a computer's memory for maximum speed in browsing, to turn off graphics, to bookmark good sites for future reference and to organise these bookmarks? Do you know how to use a search engine, complete with boolean search language, and understand how it compares to other search engines? What about intelligent agents, narrowcast channels, and other phenomena that have arisen during 1997? On the output side, what are the skills about online publishing, and not only that - about the strategic considerations and evaluation capacity about who one is publishing to, and what kind of information and communication is appropriate to that audience.
The point is that training is the key to utilising these tools properly. The technologies are one thing, the skills to use them are another. African media needs to invest in both. I don't want to underestimate the cost of this investment, but I would like to highlight the high rate of returns. There are a host of free inputs into the editorial side of the business, leading to cost-savings and product enhancements. There are increasing opportunities for increased revenue generation. Most of all, for African media to utilise the new media technologies, they become part of the developing virtual community of global journalists. In this capacity, they have not only the opportunity to be recipients of foreign information technology and content, but to contribute at least to the globe's available content - including issues like putting the condition of Africa higher on the world agenda.
A final word from Dutch journalism teacher, Peter Verwey: "The Internet is the individuals on it. The Americans won't put African information online. It is up to Africans to do it." To do this, African journalists first need to familiarise themselves with this new world. And by demonstrating the power of these technologies through their enhanced and more lucrative journalism, to then play a catalytic role in getting other stakeholders in Africa - governments, NGOs, businesses, etc. - to also begin to make use of them.
Of Africa's 54 countries, only 8 are without Internet connections. This is not to say that those that are wired are anywhere near satisfactory levels of access, costs, bandwidth, and online information resources. But it is a start. The rainy season has begun. With the help of Africa's independent journalists,bountiful crops can be planted.
List of sources:
Highway Africa. Official newsletter of the New Media 2000 conference, 9 - 11 September, Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa.
Frederick, H H. 1993. Global communication and international relations. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.
Note: thanks to Nora Paul, of the Poynter Institute, for some of the URLs.