12 Mar 2010

Local media in rural #Tanzania: print or radio?


I was asked yesterday, as I have been many times, why Daraja is trying to develop a local newspaper rather than a radio station. The idea of supporting local media in order to make local government more responsive is easy to grasp, but people are often surprised that we're talking print rather than radio.

It's easy to understand their surprise, since radio would be the more obvious answer. You don't have the same problem reaching more remote areas, you don't have to worry about literacy and radio is a more immediately interactive platform. So why did we decide otherwise and aim to establish a newspaper?

There are several reasons. We shouldn't forget that newspapers also have some advantages over radio. It's easier to convey more detailed or complicated information in writing, for example, and easier for readers to share or refer back to something later. And it's not exactly a traditional newspaper we're talking about producing. We want a paper that combines some elements of traditional papers with some tools used by NGOs to hold local government to account - Public Expenditure Tracking, Community Score Cards, etc. Communicating the results of these activities to the general public is much easier on the printed page than on radio.

We've also seen how the growth in strength and confidence in Tanzanian news media at national level has been most visible in newspapers. Broadcast media has generally followed the newspapers' lead on the big stories rather than the other way round. It is newspapers that have played the strongest role in holding national government to account, and this role for the papers has become widely understood and accepted. So by working in print we are building on this well established national culture.

There is also a question of financial sustainability. A radio station has only one source of income - advertising - which has been a problem for local radio stations elsewhere. The station effectively becomes captured by local political and business elites that control the flow of advertising revenues, making it harder to maintain an independent perspective. A newspaper has an additional source of funds - sales - which reduces dependence on local elites as well as providing excellent feedback on how popular the paper is with the public.

And finally, we like to be innovative here at Daraja. We like to test the boundaries of what works and what doesn't, and to learn and share lessons with others. Radio is the more obvious platform, which is why it's been tried in many places in Tanzania and elsewhere already. Local print media hasn't been tried, so it's the more innovative approach. It may not work, but equally it might do. And if nobody ever tries it, nobody will ever know whether it works or not.

It fits our objectives better, builds on national culture, is likely to be more sustainable, and is more innovative. So why not at least give it a try?