Audiences can now access news and events as they happen with the help of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. They are migrating from classical media to the digital sphere and, as a result, the underdeveloped mainstream media of Ethiopia is facing new challenges, competitors, and demands as well as expectations and opportunities. Especially for private press, which has been losing advertisers and failing to broaden its readership and coverage, this is bad news. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale explores the journey periodicals are taking to embrace social media.
The advancement of digital technology and the subsequent rise of social media has dramatically transformed the way in which information is gathered, scrutinized, disseminated, and digested. With the help of social media platforms, it has become possible to source information as it happens in real time. This has profoundly changed the media landscape worldwide.
In recent years, the growth of new media has also been remarkable in Ethiopia as more and more people turn to their socials for information and news. The majority of those who use the platforms for the reporting of events and news are bloggers, citizen journalists, and anyone with a handheld device and ability to post. However, few operate with licenses.
Frezer Negash is Founder of Harmony, an online media company which broadcasts news and other content through YouTube. “In a country like Ethiopia, where access to information is limited, social media is playing a major role,” says Frezer, who has worked for over ten years at different media outlets. “For instance, none of the mainstream media journalists were on the ground during the initial period of the conflict in Tigray. Here, social media was pivotal in disseminating information about the conflict.”
“Although the current administration has relaxed media’s landscape immediately after assuming power, it eventually went back to previous tactics of stifling media and harassing journalists,” argues Befekadu Hailu, Journalist and Human Rights Activist. “So, social media is highly instrumental in the country.”
Currently, there are 35 online media houses licensed by the Ethiopian Media Authority (EMA). However, many more operate without authorization . In a politically polarized nation like Ethiopia, online media exercised by unlicensed social media practitioners often creates havoc. “It is difficult to regulate online media,” argues Frezer. “It is the audience that should select.”
As social media become a platform where people interact, share, and discuss using a mix of multimedia including words, pictures, videos, and audio, the underdeveloped mainstream media that has existed for decades in Ethiopia is facing new challenges, new competitors, and new demands. However, it also brings along new expectations and opportunities. Especially for private print media, which has been losing advertising revenue and diminishing reader base, coverage, and influence, times are looking difficult.
Of course, even the circulation of giant international print media houses has massively declined due to the rise of social media. However, the adverse impact on periodicals is more severe in Ethiopia where, as per EMA, only eight newspapers and five magazines are currently active and with very low circulation numbers.
Indeed, the top three newspapers in the nation don’t exceed 10,000 copies in circulation despite having each existed for over fifteen years. The Reporter newspaper’s Sunday Amharic edition leads with 8,800 copies, while the English weeklies Fortune and Capital newspapers follow with 4,500 and 3,100 copies, respectively.
As of the last three years, online media has been overtaking mainstream media as a source of news, according to Eyob Wubneh, Social Media Editor at Champion Communications, publisher of Ethiopian Business Review (EBR) magazine and Addis Maleda newspaper and magazine. “Currently, Facebook and YouTube are the leading sources of news for the average person. Especially Ethiopians living abroad entirely rely on YouTube.”
On the other hand, newspaper readers are declining. “Today, people can get their news as it happens online,” says Endalkachew Yimam, Marketing Manager at Media and Communications Center, publisher of The Reporter. “Contrastingly, it takes a maximum of three days to print a newspaper. Distribution requires even more additional time.”
According to a study conducted by International Media Support (IMS), mainstream media in Ethiopia has lost 54Pct of its revenue as audiences and advertisers migrate online.
Frezer argues that the impact of social media is overly severe in Ethiopia mainly because mainstream media could not cope up and adapt faster. “The audience is migrating because socials deliver quicker than mainstream media. So, classic media must shift online and benefit from growing online viewership.”
This has begun to happen. For instance, newspapers such as Fortune, Capital, The Reporter, Addis Maleda, as well as EBR magazine now allow readers to subscribe and access news and articles online. “Requests for online subscriptions has doubled since the outbreak of Covid-19,” says Bizuayehu Tekeste, Digital Technology Officer at Champion Communications.
Private press are placing news on digital platforms including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Addis Maleda newspaper, which is active in posting short daily news, has 105,000 Facebook followers as of August 25, 2021 and EBR, with its in-depth monthly articles, has 35,500 followers. Other weekly newspapers, Fortune and The Reporter, have 88,000 and 43,000 followers, respectively.
By embracing digital, these media houses are starting to generate revenue through ads and subscription, while at same time boosting audience traffic and visibility. Web-based news posts generate revenue through social media networks’ traffic and their own websites. On Google platforms, once more than USD100 is generated, the money can be withdrawn. Facebook starts paying once followers reach above 10,000 while YouTube disburses if there are at least five active videos or if a single video is watched more than 600,000 times within 60 days after it its posting.
“No doubt, mainstream media are reaching higher audience numbers with the help of social media,” states Mulugeta Tessema, Media Marketing Expert. “However, the monetization process is slow in Ethiopia.”
Endalkachew agreeingly says that “the use of online media is growing but it is thus far not generating revenue as expected.”
Frezer stresses international media houses are currently outplaying local mainstreams through their strong digital existence. “BBC and others have a wider online presence when it comes to covering Ethiopian news.”
Local media have an enormous advantage over the international online behemoths because they are rooted in local communities and can cover issues in depth,” argues Justine Limpitlaw (PhD), an Electronic Communications Lawyer who undertook studies on media law in many African nations including Ethiopia. “But they are not utilizing their advantages.”
Bizuayehu argues the reason for the miniscule monetizing of online content is because they don’t have online media strategies and have not detached themselves from the mainstream mentality. “Most private press just post what they produced for their print or broadcast services. However, the BBC and other international media customize their content production according to the needs of social media audiences.”
Samson Berhane, Editor-in-Chief of Fortune newspaper, further argues that local media lack capacity in contrast to “foreign ones that don’t have problems with capital to undertake different news projects, including investigative stories. Local players don’t have the financial capacity to assign reporters at different spots at the same time.” Periodicals in Ethiopia survive on ad revenue mainly because income from subscription and sales of copies is insignificant.
The initial capital for print media ranges between ETB15,000 and 300,000, according to EMA information. Despite their low capital base, Bizuayehu argues that they can benefit from their online presence. “Online media has brought both positive and negative impacts. On the positive side, the platform maximizes the exposure and viewership of mainstream media, more than what they can do with only print circulation. However, they lack specialized production suitable for the digital space.”
Of course, social media audiences request brief and short coverages of current issues with catchy headlines. Breakthrough and in-depth subjects are wanted by professionals, researchers, academicians, and experts, not by the average online viewer. There lies the need to prepare daily news feeds for this group of people.
Samson says that Fortune does not directly post printed news and articles. “We do not directly copy from the paper and post. We repackage printed content for our website and social media platforms.”
Bizuayehu stresses that online media must have its own dedicated team and consistently post quality news in order to generate substantial revenue. “If media houses follow this pattern, embracing social media will gradually pay off.” EBR
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100