In many parts of the world media markets are in transition and press freedom is lacking. While there are calls for creative solutions, many projects never get past the test phase. How to help innovative projects succeed?
After seeing how Kenyan journalists were covering Kenya's devastating floods five years ago, I was convinced that drones - also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - could be useful. Journalists could deploy them to get aerial views of what was happening on the ground instead of risking their lives by using rickety boats to report on the catastrophe. I also thought UAVs could help journalists maintain a higher degree of editorial independence. When government agencies organized aerial tours for journalists reported on the flooded areas, the stories ended up being as much about the government's response to the disaster as about the floods themselves. This was the starting point for the project I'm currently leading: African skyCAM. We've since developed several pilot projects showcasing how reporters can use UAVs in their work: for covering a political rally, for example, or developing a 3D interactive model of a huge dumpsite in Nairobi. The project's success can largely be attributed to a small, dedicated team as well as access to funding. But it was also essential that we had the creative freedom to make the case for using UAVs in a journalistic context. Based on my experience with this and other media innovation projects, including the citizen journalism app at the Kenyan newspaper "The Star", I've put together a list of some key issues that can help innovation work.
Think about your strategy
Although many newsrooms have adopted a "digital first" approach, it's really more a slogan than a clearly thought-out strategy. Digital platform developments are mostly driven by replication, not by solid research and a sustainability plan. This lack of planning inevitably leads to one thing: failure. While most newsrooms have digital platforms they continue to do things the old way. But trying to operate new platforms with old bureaucracy and entrenched newsroom culture won't help meet ambitious targets. Newsrooms need to thoroughly audit of their physical resources, personnel and culture before introducing digital platforms. They need to get staff on board with training. And selling the vision is key.
Good tech staff have their price
Another crucial element often overlooked in digital media projects is tech staff. In Kenya, newsrooms have mostly hired external tech experts to develop tools to improve workflows, distribute content and improve user engagement. However, the working relationship between editors and developers is rarely smooth. With a skill set that's still very much in demand and therefore expensive, most tech experts prefer short-term contracts rather than being tied to a newsroom. That's why most projects are delayed or even fail. I'm a big advocate of hiring in-house developers. They're worth the investment.
Find new ways to make money
The Red Cross in Kenya runs a chain of hotels to raise money for its humanitarian work. Why can't media outlets do the same? At DW Akademie's South2South media dialogue held in Cape Town, all 14 of us attending came from Global South countries where political environments are hostile to media freedom. It was enlightening to see how others are navigating this tricky terrain. Guatemala's Plaza Pública, for example, receives most of its funding from a university. As a result, it doesn't have to rely on government advertising revenue and can report more independently. It's a model that challenges media to look into non-traditional financing options. Another project that impressed me was CGNet Swara - a type of community radio based on mobile phones. It enables people to use their mobiles for both recording and listening to reports, and this way it bypasses the government's ban on private and community radio stations broadcasting news. This interactive voice response infrastructure is still largely untapped and could provide a viable financing option through advertising or user subscriptions.
Focus on capacity building
Media development projects should focus more on capacity building rather than on product-based funding. It's become a trend for some funders to throw money at prototypes without really looking at their viability and the skill set required to develop and sustain them. Mentorship and skill-building are therefore key. The commitment to fund projects should mark the start, and not the end, of engagement. Journalists (and their managers) who receive funding need to understand their markets and adopt digital solutions - not because they're trendy but because they make editorial and business sense.
Keep an eye on regulatory issues
In the Global South, societies and governments are just beginning to look closely at the do's and dont's of the emerging digital media landscape. This may turn digital innovators into digital activists. My own project, African skyCAM, is now being threatened by new government regulations in Kenya that restrict the civil operation of drones. This kind of blanket ban kills innovation but also opens up an opportunity. I'm currently laying the foundation for an African drone journalism association that advocates the use of drones in newsgathering, and provides training.
Dickens Olewe is a Kenyan journalist who has headed a number of award-winning digital projects. Olewe is currently a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University in California. He took part in DW Akadmie's "South2South" media dialogue in 2014.
This article has first been published in DW Akademie Magazine.
Innovators of successful digital projects from 14 countries in the Global South met in Cape Town in December 2014 to take part in a four-day media dialogue. It was held by DW Akademie and the South African Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ). Participants at the event developed the "South2South Manifesto" - a document that lays out seven guiding principles for using innovative digital technology to promote freedom of expression and information. Participants' expertise ranged from crowd-sourcing, investigative research methods and hyperlocal journalism, to data visualization and open data.
The South2South Manifesto is available here.