Address by Francis Mdlongwa, Director of Rhodes University’s Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership, at the official opening of the 13th summit of the World Media Economics and Management Conference in Cape Town on 7 May 2018.
The Executive Mayor of the City of Cape Town, Her Worship Patricia de Lille; the President and Chair of the World Media Economics and Management Conference, Professor Robert G Picard; the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Rhodes University, Dr Peter Clayton; the Deputy Head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, Professor Anthea Garman; and all esteemed delegates of this conference.
Karibu to all the delegates to this historic 2018 summit of the World Media Economics and Management Conference (WMEMC). Karibu is a Kiswahili word for a very warm welcome.
The majestic City of Cape Town, Africa’s “Mother City”, stands ready to welcome you with its unique ambience of a mix of varied and rich cultures, food, languages and landmark scenic places that mark it out as one of the world’s best cities to visit in your lifetime.
Even an act of god such as a long-running drought, which this year has severely curtailed the use of water by the City’s residents, businesses and millions of visitors who throng this melting pot of Africa annually, has failed to dampen the City’s bullish mood.
So we salute all of you for choosing the city at the southerly-most tip of Africa, where the Atlantic and Indian Ocean waters serenely greet and kiss each other in a rare spectacle of ever-lasting human wonder, as the host of this, the thirteenth edition of the WMEMC.
This year’s conference is historic in several but especially in two specific ways. First, it is the first time that this top-level global gathering of the world’s leading scholars and researchers of media business, of media management, of media economics, and of journalism and communications has come to the African shores in nearly three decades since the founding of the WMEMC.
Second, it is historic because of its timely and I hope bold intervention to critically examine and proffer workable solutions that are based on solid research evidence to counter one of humanity’s greatest existential threats in what is supposed to be a more open and transparent digital and social age but one which we see being closed up, monopolized and dominated by a few technological platforms.
Rasmus Nielsen and Sarah Ganter (2018) warn in a recently published paper focusing on the operations of what they call ‘digital intermediaries’ that these platforms are increasingly taking over control of the news media’s editorial, communication channels and other key levers globally and are “reshaping how news is distributed (and by extension (how it is) produced and funded” (page 1601).
Anchored in the extraction and selling of precious audiences’ personal data to third parties and in the creation of network effects (Srnicek, 2017), these opaque platforms are in the short term delivering greater audience reach to media houses but many in the Fourth Estate are correctly worrying about the long-term impact of the closed networks which are being built, as well as the meagre revenues for media that emanate from this envisaged collaboration.
In addition, “we are, as individual, ordinary users, increasingly transparent to and monitored by (these) large technology companies that we rely on,” according to Nielsen and Ganter (2018, 1611). And I am sure that the case of Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal information from Facebook for political ends is still fresh on our minds.
This summit’s challenge is simply this: should humanity allow a triopoly of Google, Facebook and Apple, aided by Twitter, Amazon and a few other global technological giants such as Alibaba, to define who we are and our future? Should humanity allow them to define our values and beliefs; to define our ethics and moral standards; and, above all, to redefine what our centuries-old democracy should be – all in the name of ‘likes’, ‘mentions’, ‘tweets’, ‘followers’ and ‘trending stories’ which are posted on these platforms under the guise of ‘enlightenment’ of our globalized world?
Should humanity in this ‘brave twenty-first century’ allow these technological platforms to define and run — virtually solo and almost with impunity and without any meaningful regulation except for Europe’s nascent efforts of enacting the General Data Protection Regulation — a global ‘platform economy’ that takes over the work of mainstream media and of hundreds of thousands of dedicated scribes who have for centuries provided humanity with mostly credible, high quality and ethical journalism?
Yes, the unfolding digital terrain enjoins mainstream media and their journalists to urgently reframe their role and place in a rapidly changing and discontinuous media ecosystem. They have to learn to live and thrive in this ‘new reality’ of permanent change and provide better, faster, more credible and more diverse news content which has more diverse voices to audiences who are today co-producing news content as competitors.
But journalism’s central tenets of being fact-and-evidenced-based, of holding the powerful and those who govern us accountable, of being a voice for the marginalized and others who suffer for the sins of their fathers and mothers, cannot and must not be sacrificed at the altar of business and become ‘captured’ by the platforms.
Many inside and outside the media industry keep asking this key question: is there any reason why media firms themselves cannot jointly launch their own Google-type or Facebook-style social network to harness the dividend of the digital era without creating walls that preclude the poor from accessing the news, which in the new information age is a basic human right?
If this is not immediately feasible for strategic if political reasons – and I must say here that everything in our beautiful earth is political — perhaps governments should seriously consider a proposal that has been made media analyst Nick Srnicek (2017) to create competing ‘public platforms’ that are independent of state surveillance and are run as public utilities.
At a minimalist level, Srnicek suggests that “the state…has the power to control platforms. Anti-trust cases can break up monopolies, local regulations can impede or even ban exploitative…platforms, government agencies can impose new privacy controls, and co-ordinated action on tax avoidance can draw capital back into public hands (page 127)”.
While there is much ‘news noise’ around us these days (BBC’s Harding, 2015) and we are threatened by a debilitating ‘Attention Deficit Disorder’ that might force some people to seek ‘attention conservation zones’ (Davenport and Beck, 2001) perhaps in Mars, humanity desperately and urgently needs journalism that makes sense of the increasingly fluid, uncertain, ambiguous and unstable world in which we live in.
In short, journalism needs to go back to the basics: it has to intensify its efforts in doing great investigative journalism which offers audiences the highest quality news content possible and exclusive news which the public can use because this news adds value and meaning to their lives.
Yes, we need new and varied forms and formats of journalisms that give audiences context, background, explanation, significance of the fast-paced events of our times and solutions and explanations to their challenges. Journalism cannot and should not be just what media analysts such as Alfred Hermida (2010) have identified as ‘ambient journalism’, which focuses on creating audiences’ ‘awareness’ about key issues but sorely lacks creating and cementing deeper human understanding, coherence and insights of our increasingly more complex lives.
And what we certainly do not need – and humanity’s future largely depends on combatting this mushrooming menace – is a restyled form of new propaganda, new misinformation, new disinformation that is being peddled by believers of so-called ‘alternative facts’ in a ‘post-truth world’. God forbid that this generation, in the name of ‘progress and enlightenment’, should ‘normalize’ outright lies, manipulation of facts and sheer madness by the emerging Joseph Goebbels of our time.
It simply cannot be that “things will get better because they are getting worse”, as sarcastically noted by the media scholar James Curran (2010: 466) in summarizing the views of some millennials on the future of journalism.
Let me use this moment to thank all of the many people who made this landmark conference a reality. Hundreds of people from across the world have made this conference possible. I want to gratefully thank and acknowledge the vital contribution that each one of you has generously offered.
This brief note makes it impossible, however, for me to name all of you by name. However, my fuller speech which we are posting shortly on the website of the WMEMC names all of those whose contributions I treasure and cherish.
However, a big ‘thank you’ goes to the following individuals for their outstanding contributions: Robert G Picard; Anthea Garman; Sizwe Mabizela; Peter Clayton; Vanessa Malila; Noel Pearse; Heide Khuhlane; Nomfundo Sobukwe; Sibonise Mbengashe; Wendy Dyibishe; Lwandiso Gwarubana; Harry Dugmore; Aviwe Matandela; Michelle Constant; Anthony Julies; Clayton Barnes; Virgil Smith; Kim Nell; Faisal Ackerdien; Belinda De Lange; Gerald Brown; Luzuko Jacobs; Veliswa Mhlope; Rhonda Breit; Yvonne Burger; Sibongile Madikane; Bozena Mierzejewska; Charmaine Avery; Chris Kabwato; Lynette Steenveld; Larry Strelitz; Benedict Komeke; Nhlanhla Ngwenya; Siphosami Malunga; Brian Garman; Brenda Madisha; Michael Jana and his team; and Simon Simon Pamphilon.
But I cannot end this welcome note without paying tribute and heartfelt thanks to my ever tolerant and patient wife, Elizabeth, and my youngest daughter, Mpho, for inspiring me to work each and every night at the expense of me giving them my full attention, love and friendship in the past two years of frenetic planning for this conference. They are God’s angels for all time!
Finally but not least, I want to thank all of you, our distinguished delegates, for making tremendous sacrifices of time, money and effort to grace us with your presence from far-flung countries and territories across the world at this truly historic WMEMC summit.
Asanta sana – thank you so much in Kiswahili – for your unprecedented dedication and commitment to the cause of a building up and nurturing a financially vibrant media and journalism and thus defending our hard-won democracy, which we should not forget is never given forever.
Conference Director and
Director of the Sol Plaatje Institute for Media Leadership
School of Journalism and Media Studies
Davenport, T.H. and Beck, J.C. 2001. The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. Harvard: Harvard Printing Press.
Curran, J. 2010. The Future of Journalism. Journalism Studies, Volume 11, No.4, pages 464-476.
Harding, J. 2015. Future of News. Available at http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/29_01_15future_of_news.pdf. (Consulted on 29 March 2018).
Hermida, A. 2010. Twittering the News: The Emergence of Ambient Journalism. Journalism Practice, Volume 4, No. 3, pages 297-308.
Nielsen, R. K. and Ganter, S.A. 2018. Dealing with digital intermediaries: A case study of the relations between publishers and platforms. New Media & Society, Vol. 20 (4), pages 1600-1617.
Srnicek, N. 2017. Platform Capitalism. Cambridge (U.K.): Polity.
END OF F MDLONGWA’S WELCOME NOTE AT OPENING OF WMEMC IN CAPE TOWN, 7 MAY 2018