2 Oct 2010

Cards up in the air: Digital media as a disruptive technology in #Tanzania

The destruction brought by digital media to traditional media in the global north has been fascinating to watch, but pretty terrifying for people whose jobs and business models are at risk. The internet, blogs, social networks, and even mobile phones have all contributed to declining newspaper sales and advertising revenues, and to the closure of hundreds of newspapers.

In Tanzania the paper with the largest circulation is said to sell around 40,000 copies a day. Most of the papers are highly dependent on advertising, with the only possible exceptions being those who put political interests before commercial profitability. Meanwhile internet access continues to grow rapidly, driven by mobile phones. With mobile phones, developing countries have already leapfrogged fixed line networks, but they are now also leapfrogging laptops.

This was the topic of a fascinating presentation in Dar last week from veteran South African investigative journalist and entreprenuer, Justin Arenstein, organised by the Business Writers Association. What does the growth of digital media mean for the future of Tanzanian media?

The energy of both the presenter and participants was inspiring, as was the quality of the discussions. (It made a very pleasant contrast the Joint Water Sector Review going on at the same time.)

As a side point, the only small disappointment was the slightly low turnout for a well-advertised event. The organisers explained that several journalists and others had asked about seating allowances, prompting Justin to ask what kind of screwed up situation is it where people won't attend what was essentially a free training event without being paid to do so.

But back to the main issue at hand. Justin highlighted a wide range of new technologies and products, and described the disruption they are causing in the traditional media elsewhere. This ranged from the familiar (facebook, blog sites, etc.) to some more cutting edge products - I will post a longer list with links in a later post. And peppered the talk with some great stats: 25% of Kenya's GDP flows through M-pesa; Facebook is targeting 250m African users; 11 sub-marine fibre-optic cables will reach Africa in 2009-2011.

He argued that the change is already well underway in places like South Africa and Kenya, and has started here in Tanzania. The result will be, as it has been elsewhere, an erosion of the power of journalists, editors and media owners, with that power dispersed instead to citizens.

The consensus in the discussions afterwards was that this change was broadly a positive one for Tanzania, led by the high proportion of new media advocates and practitioners in the room. Dispersing power to citizens was seen as a good thing. There was also a buzz of excitement with ideas for new businesses emerging out of almost every question or comment.

As to what the future holds, it seems the only certainty is change. What precise form that change will take is no clearer here than it is in the west. And its unlikely to be a one-off transformation to a new and stable status quo, but rather the beginning of a new, flexible, dynamic, ever-changing media sector.

If you throw a deck of cards up in the air, there's little chance of predicting what order the cards will be in when they land. My pessimistic side suspects that the kings will find a way to climb back to the top. But that outcome is not inevitable: this is also an opportunity for new players, new ideas and new power relationships to emerge. Can we take it?

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PS - As an example of what can be done with digital media, this blogpost was written while travelling, written on a mobile phone and sent direct from that phone to the Daraja blog from the middle of nowhere.