As media ecosystems in West Africa diversify and open after decades of state control, innovative and independent journalism is advancing government transparency and accountability. New opportunities for funders are opening in tandem, with potential for both social and economic impact. Reboot explored several of these opportunities through in-depth research in Nigeria and Ghana.
Traditionally, trust in the media in the region is low. Citizens view most media as political instruments, frequently biased and easily corruptible. Many media organizations, for their part, compromise editorial independence to survive, and resort to lowest-common-denominator content to drive traffic.
This mistrust has led to a wholehearted embrace of new and social media tools. Citizens are seeking alternative views, contributing their perspectives, and redefining popular media narratives on platforms which are not beholden to elites.
Their participation has led to a dramatic reshaping of the dynamics between citizens, media, and government.
Media faces competitive pressure from social media to deliver critical examinations of official narratives.
Spurred by audience demand and contributions, media is increasingly uncovering corruption and holding leaders accountable to their promises.
Citizens continue to contribute the media dialogue to the extent that they see governments held accountable.
The historic 2015 Nigerian general election demonstrates this virtuous cycle. Citizens photographed polling results, compared them to the official government results, and discussed on social media. Their evidence spread across new and traditional media, giving their contributions audience and influence, which in turn incentivized more citizen participation.
Despite citizens’ critical role in reshaping media and improving governance, few organizations are leveraging them for both social impact and financial sustainability. Beyond the low-hanging fruit of elections and major corruption scandals, citizen energy remains largely untapped. Interested funders should focus on two key opportunity areas:
Media’s impact on governance and financial stability both hinge on audience engagement. Few people leap straight from reading the news to taking political action, but they can be pushed through increasing engagement levels:
To acquire an audience, media must differentiate. Too few leverage the power of niche, choosing instead to imitate mass media and “do everything.”
Opportunity: Through foundational market research, funders can help fledgling media entities develop empirical business and editorial strategies and claim a niche.
To get audiences talking, media must understand what makes them tick. Most are using blunt analytics and engagement metrics that mask the nuances of engagement.
Opportunity: By providing direct support in analytics and engagement metrics, funders can help media better target editorial strategies for action.
To drive audiences to civic action, media can peg content development to political opportunities. Covering unfulfilled promises, for example, can direct energy to hold officials accountable.
Opportunity: Recognizing media’s resource constraints, funders can encourage collaborations with civil society to support in-depth reporting on timely political openings.
Independent finance is a prerequisite for independent editorial. To encourage the development of sustainable business models, funders must provide new financial pathways for media to grow and experiment:
Some of the most productive independent media voices are individuals. Operating with low overhead that shields them from compromise, solo journalists are sharing critical information with enthusiastic audiences through social media.
Opportunity: Providing funding, journalism training, and business guidance to promising individuals for short-term impact.
Donor funding is usually tied to reporting on specific sectors or issues. There is a greater need for core operating funds that enable media organizations to set their own agendas and editorial strategy.
Opportunity: Designing responsive funding mechanisms that provide greater agency, tailored to different stages of the organizational lifecycle (from start-up to established).
Many in media worry that it is impossible to maintain both editorial independence and operational sustainability. Philanthropic and private sector funders can offer hope through more flexible and innovative solutions.
Opportunity: Funders offer unique value in a media landscape. More creative financing, such as supporting media loan funds, can “incubate” organizations through long-term, supportive relationships.
In the digital age, the most successful and impactful media entities will be not just delivery channels to the people, but platforms for the people. There are exciting opportunities for funders to support media organizations in making this shift, and to increase their agency and power by winning and engaging audiences.
Citizens have increased confidence that today’s fourth estate is able to fulfill its watchdog function, and that it needs their help. In a challenging market, where political influence is rampant and finance is tight, this citizen energy is media’s most valuable asset. It is also a renewable resource.
Now is the time for funders and media organizations to support this energy, and work alongside citizens toward a fairer, more accountable West Africa—and a playbook that can help others advance independent media and good governance around the world.Download the Full Report