Sunday, September 19, 2021

Counting the cost of Covid-19 on Botswana’s private media

In April this year, Botswana took an essential decision to impose the first ever national lockdown in an effort to contain the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) after registering its first three cases of the pandemic.

This drastic verdict has not only left many people in the verge of losing everything that they have worked hard for and leaving many sectors of the economy with a wound.

COVID-19 outbreak is causing a widespread concern and untold economic hardships for consumers, businesses and communities across the world, with everyone looking over their shoulders and hoping for a miracle.

It has not made everything easier for the private media industry in Botswana like everywhere else in the world, as they have to expand to new ways of survival and keep their businesses on the market.

Business Weekly editor Keabetswe Newel said COVID-19 has brought about drastic changes in the way they do business. He said that because media depends on advertising as their number one revenue, it has been difficult during lockdowns as companies experienced a decline on this major part of their financial source. The decline in revenue affected their operational costs as they were not able to fund operations properly compared to when there was enough revenue. This led to them being conservative on their spending and curve their operational costs to be able to sustain the business.

“We had to cut down on printing to reduce the number of copies circulated as movement was restricted because people did not have the chance to go out and buy newspapers in large numbers and the rate of absorption was not normal,” he said. Newel pointed out that they were not pushed to a point where they had to cut salaries of their employees nor did they retrench staff as they understood that they have families to feed in these challenging times. Productivity was also compromised as movement of people was restricted during lockdown, this meant that media houses had to shift to technology. Media houses encouraged workers to work from home in accordance to health regulations. This was a challenge on its own as some workers did not have any means to meet up the requirements as they were not well resourced with internet and laptops. Production hence, became a challenge and the company’s costs also increased as they had to provide these resources for work to be done and deadlines be met. Coronavirus has fastened a change of traditional media to digital journalism in Botswana which was not in any case thought to be more essential than before.

This transition may help them in the future as digitalization is the future of the media industry. Digitalization has helped in this critical time in curbing of “Fake news” to the public about the pandemic and developments, this helped journalists as they were able to disseminate information during lockdown. Regarding online platforms, Newel pointed out that they experienced an increase in digital subscriptions and membership, from Batswana inside and outside the country on their online platforms. But they do not have actual numbers. They also experienced an increase in the number of followers on their Facebook page and Twitter. This created a setback because it did not yield more results on revenue, because people who subscribe to their content pirate their newspapers by downloading and sharing them.

Outsa Mokone, Sunday Standard Editor

through other media platforms such as WhatsApp.  Hence, they do not benefit much as their content is duplicated and shared without being paid for. Publisher of The Patriot on Sunday newspaper Mpho Dibeela said that they confirmed the safety of their employees who worked on site during lockdown by ensuring that they are mentally prepared and also complied with COVID-19 health

protocols of wearing masks.  He dreads what might happen to their business if the situation does not get better. “We fear that the longer COVID-19 continues, the greater the possibility of closure. We are still struggling as a business ever since the COVID-19 pandemic set in. Advertising revenue has not been restored,” said Dibeela.

In voicing out his experiences Outsa Mokone, publisher of the Sunday Standard and The Telegraph stated that, “Our operations have been disrupted in many ways we didn’t expect. The way we work and the entire business landscape are among the many elements that have changed.”

He said the biggest challenge facing the Botswana media industry is not a “Covid- 19 crisis, but a framing crisis. We in the media industry are suffering our professional socialization in framing the Covid-19 challenge. We are always accused of being negative and this is to some extent true. It is the natural progression of our professional socialization. We have been trained to hold government and other powerful actors accountable. This means putting their excesses, flaws and failures out there. Our undeclared operational mantra is, “bad news sells”. This has morphed into a mindset, which is not very helpful when the industry has to deal with a pandemic like Covid 19 because whatever blessings Covid-19 has vouchsafed us are being refracted through our normal prism of bad news. This mindset shows us bad news and makes us believe that Covid-19 and its fallout should be blamed on other people or elements we cannot control. The truth of the matter, however is that before Covid-19 the Botswana media industry was dealing with a lot of challenges amongst them a credibility crisis. Covid 19 only presented a natural selection process.

I believe Covid-19 will help us wean deleterious traits and flaws in our business models ensuring that over time, these negative traits would disappear.  Conversely, helpful traits will survive with us into the future. Survival of the fittest is a perfect paradigm that underpins the the state of the Botswana media during this pandemic. This pandemic has created a positive bifurcation in the Botswana media industry that will see the fit advancing and the weak quite literally, closing up shop. I am actually happy that the media industry is going through a genetic drift and I am convinced it will emerge stronger because only media houses with strong enough DNAs will survive the coronavirus. The fact is, we cannot avoid crisis and change. We may face even tougher situations in the future and the only way to prepare for them is to build strong foundations. Covid-19 is helping us do that.”

The president of the Botswana Media Alliance Workers Union (BOMAWU), Philmon Mmeso pointed out with great sadness that they started to see the impact of the pandemic during the first lockdown as freelancers who report about, events, lifestyle and sports did not have anything to report on. Hence, their source of income was closed. “Some of these freelancers failed to pay their rentals and the association had to come up with a fund to assist them. For instance, buying groceries so they could survive,” Mmeso said. He also alleged that some media houses cut employee’s salaries by 50% while some experienced cuts in 25% which he was reluctant to point out. “The safety of some employees was a concern as they were exposed to the virus and were not given counselling. Some journalists were exposed to abuse from their employers and sources, and the quality of reporting reduced as people were not earning much,” said Mmeso. With the pandemic feared to be entering a second wave in southern Africa, it remains to be seen whether the craft of journalism can withstand the times as with advertising revenue coming in dribs and drabs and publishers feeling the temptation to cut staff as the only means to survive. 

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