The COVID -19 pandemic has profoundly and globally affected every human endeavour by rendering and gradually leaving our societies tense, challenged and even insecure.
For the media sector in Nigeria and, indeed, globally, the COVID-19 era has hit it hard; devastating and existentially threatening.
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Even before the pandemic in late 2019, the sector in Nigeria had been struggling against challenges like fake news which undermines public confidence in the media, decline in advertising, staff layoffs, welfare and professional safety issues, rise of digital platforms (google) that dominate access (gateway) etc.
COVID-19 has ruthlessly compounded the predicaments of the media in Nigeria.
The Coronavirus crisis has led to loss in advertising and sales revenues and other financial earnings for the media, thus, undermining their business model.
Following the need for credible information and entertainment during the lockdown and confinement, people increased time for TV viewing, radio listening and reading of newspapers, resulting in renewed interest and added pressure on the media without a corresponding increase in media revenue.
At a time when people needed critical and credible information, most media houses were hampered by lack of resources to deliver optimally.
However, the media got the status of frontline workers which speaks to an understanding that their value as bearers of important and verifiable information was recognized as part of the ways of stemming the public health crisis.
Confinement and social distancing measures have led to the emergence of new television formats like the integration of consumer technologies (zoom, face-time) into programmes created under new conditions.
Confinement has caused many changes that have accelerated the digital transition of the media, particularly broadcasters, leading to readership decline in print but increased online.
There was a rise in digital advertising so much that global advert revenue in 2018 was $558 billion which was above 40%; broadcasting 8%. For newspapers and digital advert, facebook, google, etc took a chunk of it. In news dilemma, people have vastly more choices at little or no cost, because many people simply skim headlines. Apparently, the commercial future is unclear and uncertain.
Officials became more difficult to access for information, interviews and to confirm stories. Regarding job loss, about 23 middle and small media outfits closed shop in 2020 alone. The pressattack.ng reported a peak in the violations of media rights, suggesting also that the safety of journalists became a major issue. Female journalists in many surveys also spoke of heightened cases of online harassment.
Certainly, we noticed a massive elevation in misinformation on the evidence produced by dubawa.ng.
However, the COVID-19 era presents some opportunities for the media to maximize.
They must appreciate and respond to the changing context and prepare to confront a future of uncertainty with bold strategic and innovative actions.
Other opportunities include credibility and legitimacy of the media (trust, principles, identities, style, engagement, etc), dynamic management system and smarter newsrooms (for shared objectives), new sustainable funding model, reinvention and redesigning media business while still being coherent and consistent, mainstreaming digital technology and interface (video & audio), audience development skills (people need to be encouraged), partnerships and collaborations, safety, and welfare of journalists, promoting journalism brand to young people.
Government intervention is highly needed to salvage the media, especially through innovation in our democratization process.
Governments should appreciate the role of the media as exemplified by its classification as an essential service during this pandemic to secure journalism as a business that is at the heart of the democracy project.
This may take the form of carefully thought-through and well negotiated measures acceptable to the industry in a manner that does not erode credibility and independence of the media like tax waivers, payment of debts (advertising bills) and better investment in public broadcasters or even lifting of licence fees for commercial broadcast channels) and establishment of a national media development fund.
On the way forward, new media funding models are also required as a single source of revenue is not Sustainable. The best way to be independent is to be profitable. Diversification is key.
Investment in investigative journalism facilities, breaking news, technology and expanding reach are also crucial.
Definitely, COVID-19 crisis will continue to impact on people’s behaviours, businesses and companies. Therefore, the media must adjust their editorial and marketing strategies to respond to scenarios as a part of sensing the context capability.
As the financial health of traditional media (excluding streaming and social media) is under threat, they must also develop restructuring plans and reduce non-essential costs.
The media must not get trapped in old ways or outdated technologies nor neglect of the youth. If you do, they win, you lose. Very importantly, too, the media must avoid battles they cannot win, promote media and digital literacy as well as critical thinking to fight fake news factories, especially propaganda and technology. They must Invest in investigative and data-driven journalism. They must also focus and invest in technology, content and credibility.
In the COVID-19 era, Nigeria needs media with independent spirit and mindset built on sustainable funding as well as professionally equipped and secured system to protect, promote and project our democracy and its values.
The COVID-19 experience should offer us an opportunity to reinvent and redesign media business, while still staying true to a coherent and consistent mission.
Umaru A. Pate is the Vice Chancellor of Federal University, Kashere, Gombe State.