CEOs must understand uniqueness of journalism

Friday, July 10th, 2020 00:00 |

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There is a thick canvas of gloom covering the media sector. This past week alone, faces that have for long greeted the country every evening, breaking the day’s news, switched off the lights and walked off the set not knowing when and if they will ever return.

Those remaining waved cautiously not knowing when their luck will run out. Those in the C-Suites are busy cracking their heads on how to stay afloat.

But it seems the answers they come up with have always been the same: Re-size the newsroom, embrace technology, package information for the e-platforms, cut down costs, et al.

It is the same tools that have been drilled into the minds of business “saviours” wearing the MBA cap.

If we consider journalism as business for a moment, how can the business of journalism be saved? By understanding it.

Journalism is simply the art of story-telling and the product of journalism is stories – all round well told stories – not the newspaper or the television box, but the stories in them.

Can solid MBA models save story-telling? Story-telling is a creative sector and you do not get better stories by cutting the numbers, the pages on which those stories are told or where they may be available.

You get better stories by firing up the creative genius at the heart of story-telling.

The business models may do well in the manufacturing sector where once the machines have been set a single finger can switch on the power and once you have your raw materials in then you can wait at the end of the assembly line to collect your products. 

You increase production by running the machine longer, more efficiently or even faster. A good story can not be hastened.

Great writers, the creative minds that are the mainstay of the industry, can be a difficult lot indeed to deal with.

They are hard to fit in a three piece suit. They sometimes show up with unkempt hair, sometimes a cigarette in hand muttering incoherently then sit down at a computer terminal and before you know it they are carrying you into their world of rich imagination, sometimes carrying the country with them.

Such minds are not easily replicable. Nobody reads news like Raphael Tuju, draws cartoons like Shapiro or Godfrey Mwampembwa, writes like Kamau Ngotho, or has an encyclopaedic mind like Philip Ochieng’.

How do you ever improve the quality of your product by getting rid of Joe Rodrigues, for example?

It has been decades since Wahome Mutahi took the path of all men and journeyed to a land from where mortals never return. He will never be replaced because there can never be another Whispers. 

This is where the C-Suites get it wrong. Tasked to deliver good figures that will please shareholders, they fall back on the same strategies that worked in the manufacture and sale of soap: cost the expenses in covering a story, reduce the overheads by firing the story-tellers, and so on.

But the departure of a story-teller marks the end of your product. There are many viewers who will swear that nobody can broadcast football like Leonard Mambo Mbotela and that soccer is not the same without him behind the microphone.

You get rid of him, they swim with him to the starry nihilism, never once looking back at the station from where he worked, or the football that he loved.

This is the uniqueness of the world of journalism. It may very well be that the way to increase profits is not to get rid of the old story tellers  but to add on their numbers.

Maybe the problem is that there are many pretenders in journalism and the C-Suites do not know the difference between the real the ones and the pretenders. 

The challenge is to hire the right people from the beginning, and keep building on that foundation. 

That way you never dilute the product and it may be the only way to keep the stock market happy. — The writer is Dean, School of Communication, Daystar University

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