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From colonial times to the present, the Kenyan media has experienced massive growth and change. From its establishment at the dawn of colonial occupation to the present, it has alternately thrived and weathered serious challenges, with its form and role in society morphing, and its performance not always matching the expectations of Kenyans. Thirteen years ago, one study asserted that “Kenyan audiences trust media. In fact, they almost perceive media reports as ‘gospel truth’” citing a survey from 2007 that showed 80 percent of respondents professed faith in the media’s reporting on the government. Today, however, the situation is markedly different. According to a report from the  Media Council of Kenya, between 2019 and 2022, the proportion of Kenyans who said they has “a lot of trust” in the media dropped by nearly half, from 48 per cent to 21 per cent, although the total proportion of those who said they had at least a measure of trust, small or a lot, stayed the same at around 70 percent.

The declining fortunes of Kenya’s media partly reflect the declining fortunes of media around the world. A study carried out last year in 46 countries by the Reuters Institute found “interest in news and overall news consumption has declined considerably in many countries while trust has fallen back almost everywhere”. With a brief interruption during the covid years when people were perhaps reminded of the value of reliable news sources, this loss of trust and relevance has been pretty much a feature of 21st century journalism, though not necessarily felt in exactly the same way in every nation.

In Kenya, the media has always had to evolve and has almost always been defined by its relationship to the state. In the beginning, served the interests of the privileged groups like white settler colonists, administrators and missionaries that played a role in the creation of the Kenyan state. It was then coopted by other groups, including South East Asian immigrant workers and local activists and nationalists like Harry Thuku and later, Jomo Kenyatta. With the exception of The East African Standard, most of the publications established in the colonial era were short-lived affairs and did not survive due to a mixture of commercial pressures and suppression by the colonial state.

In the immediate post-independence period, the watchdog role of the press was overshadowed by its role in promoting nation-building, practicing what came to be referred to as ‘development journalism’. In this way, the media was more a mouthpiece for increasingly authoritarian Kanu dictatorship and while it was allowed a limited degree of freedom, that was strictly circumscribed. In the eighties and nineties, however, the media played an important role in the push for multiparty democracy and reform of the Kanu state.

Since the election of Mwai Kibaki in 2002, the media have been in what noted columnist Charles Onyango-Obbo, in 2013 described as “Establishment Mode” where they “cease to aggressively challenge the political system, become vested in “stability”, and begin to worry about what will happen if the system breaks down”. With that comes a larger focus on sustainability of media houses as a business and reduced emphasis on its “fourth estate” functions. Thus the media has been implicated in the state’s subversion of laws and suppression of rights during elections, such as in 2013 when despite clear evidence of widespread failure and fraud, it would not challenge the state’s assertion if a free and fair vote. In the next election cycle, it went even further and not only corruptly accepted government payments for running clearly illegal advertisements during the campaign period, but media owners and senior management were also complicit in the state’s attempts to ban live coverage of Raila Odinga’s mock swearing in as the People’s President.

This latter period has also coincided with the rise of the internet which has hugely impacted revenues at media outlets. With Google and Facebook gobbling up advertising, without a historical subscription model to fall back on, and unable to build sustainable revenue models around their electronic and digital offerings, the largest media houses are struggling, with most of them forced to live off declining revenues from their nearly anachronistic print divisions – for example the Nation Media Group’s  63-year-old flagship newspaper still accounted for nearly three-quarters of revenue in 2021, although its circulation has declined precipitously.

This reality is leading to a reappraisal of the role the media will play going forward. As evidence by the staff layoffs and salary payment delays, establishment mode is clearly not working. The question is what comes next. And perhaps the increasingly critical coverage of the William Ruto regime, as well as the growth of small independent upstarts like The Elephant, Africa Uncensored and Debunk Media, points to some answers. In recent days, the Kenyan media appears to have rediscovered journalism with more critical investigative stories and fact checks. The desperation generated by falling revenue may be leading to a reappraisal of business models – rather than selling audiences to advertisers, media may be going back to the future and prioritising selling news content to audiences.

If this is the case, and it may still be too early to tell whether it is, Kenyan media may be on the verge of a new and exciting and hazardous phase. For while putting the needs of its audiences front and centre may seem to be the obvious thing to do, it is far from clear how that can be done profitably. Even in its hey-day, when the cost of a newspaper was significantly subsidized by advertising, probably less than two million Kenyans, largely in Nairobi and other towns, got to read a newspaper. Everyone else listened to the radio, which they did not have to pay for. Now people are flocking to social media and free public broadcast TV for the same. And the challenge of how to get the news to pay for itself is further complicated by the cost of living crisis.

However, the same digital technologies that have doomed traditional media houses may also be riding to their rescue. “Going forward bulk of the revenues will come through going digital. The legacy media like print will still remain for a few years but distribution will be mainly digital,” NMG chairman Wilfred Kiboro said last year. With digital distribution especially via mobile phone, one can innovate around the sorts of news products one is selling. For example, people could only pay for the stories they want to read rather than subscribe to the entire newspaper which would force journalists to concentrate on quality rather than on quantity.

However, even this would require a revamping of how news is collected and paid for. At the moment, about 70 per cent of the stories in a Kenyan newspaper are not written by staff journalists, but rather produced by freelance correspondents who are paid by how many stories are accepted and how many column-inches they take up. The incentive is thus for these correspondents to produce as many stories as possible and not to spend too much time on any one – a well-researched 200 word piece will be paid the same as a poorly-researched one. Within newsrooms, this conveyor belt mentality and tight deadlines means sub-editors and editors only edit for language and space, and rarely for content. A world where digital content is truly king has no publication deadlines and newspapers can essentially partner with reporters to produce engaging, well-researched stories, each of which could be offered to millions of readers at a few cents, or a few shillings, per download, and the revenue shared between the media house and the reporter.

In such a world, the media would be transformed into a true online public square. Rather than determining agendas, its role could be to work with journalists in much the same way book publishers work with writers. The aggregation of views/downloads of a story would replace the front page or story order as the measure of a story’s importance. The low cost of individual stories which could be achieved would make public entry into the square meaningful, and by their choice of what to buy, the public, not editors, would dictate which issues mattered to them and thus what would be profitable for journalists to pursue.

If this were to happen, and again, it is not automatic (or perhaps even likely) that it will, it might mean that Kenyan media may finally live up to the expectations that Kenyans have had for it for generations.