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Beware off the lcarus Paradox, SPI head tells media

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PDMM student Sheryleen Masuku (SM) spoke to Francis Mdlongwa (FM), Director of the Sol Plaatje Institute (SPI) for Media Leadership, on a range of questions regarding the SPI and other issues to mark the Institute’s twelfth anniversary this year. Excerpts from their conversation:  

SM: You worked for the international news and information agency Reuters and other media companies and broke some of the world’s big news stories. What was it like during those heady days and what brought you to Rhodes?

 

FM: I count myself as having been lucky and blessed to have witnessed and reported on some of the important events and issues which, to a large extent, defined Africa and humanity’s existence in the 20th century.  Working for Reuters in many parts of the world for more than a decade, I found myself thrust into covering events such as Lesotho’s military coup in January 1986; the historic multi-party elections in South Africa, Kenya and Malawi in the 1990s; the war and peace in countries of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa such as Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Angola and Zimbabwe; the toppling of then Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991; the collapse of the imposing Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Cold War.

 

I had earlier reported on other history-making events such as the end of white minority rule in then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the coming to power of Robert Mugabe and other black nationalists; South Africa’s campaign to hold on to white apartheid rule and what neighbouring black-ruled African countries saw as its  destabilising efforts on them; the formation of the so-called Frontline States of Southern Africa and their role in the struggle for democracy in the region; the role of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union); and many other events in what I consider to have been a truly epoch-making century as humanity sought a democracy that works, freedom and a better life for most. It was both an exciting and yet challenging and tumultuous period often marked by rapidly changing events. Having witnessed all this and realising that one is not getting any younger, I felt that it was time to slow down a bit and not to continue being what a friend of mine used to jokingly call me “a visiting husband” because I was away from home too often and for too long at any given time! So I was again lucky to find myself working at Rhodes University, where I could ‘slow down’ (in reality it is equally busy at Rhodes) and be with the family more often.

But more seriously, I regarded the Rhodes job as a presenting me with a new and exciting opportunity: that is, educating and training journalists and other media leaders in redressing what over the years I had noticed were some knowledge and skills gaps in the industry. The issue of how media companies are led, managed and staffed; their response to  emerging environmental challenges and opportunities and the speed with which they respond; their ability to deal with an increasingly more complex, fluid and uncertain future, are all at the heart of whether these firms succeed or fail. This becomes even more critical now with the collapse of legacy media’s traditional business model of ‘selling audiences to advertisers’ and the emergence of rapid and yet permanent market turbulence.               

SM: Has it been worth your while?

FM: I am not exactly sure of the context of this question. If you mean ‘do I feel contented professionally’ in my current position, the answer is yes. If you are asking whether I still miss the hectic work of international news reporting, the answer is also yes. The important point though is that I am using my work experience gleaned from many years’ work at several organizations to try to illuminate my teaching at the SPI, essentially integrating work and theory by giving examples of what works and does not work and why, and proffering possible solutions of what could be done in dealing with management and leadership challenges that face media and journalists.

SM: What have been some of the highlights at the SPI for you?

FM: Working with SPI colleagues and the founder of the Institute, Professor Guy Berger, to lay a firm foundation for the institution, including drawing up its founding vision, mission, values and so on; expanding both the short courses and the number of students who attend the flagship Postgraduate Diploma in Media Management (PDMM) through a focused campaign to mobilize scholarships for these students; and the perennial quest to keep the Institute sustainable in tough market conditions which have seen the media industry cutting back on training budgets, which in turn impacts negatively on the SPI’s income.

SM: The courses the SPI offers are good but would you say they are attracting the right numbers? If not, what are you doing about it?

FM: As I have just indicated in answer to your previous question, some of the media companies in Africa are cutting back on training budgets, which means that we need to be more creative and innovative in designing courses and programmes that are more relevant to the needs of the media industry. Essentially, this means having to do more market research on the courses and programmes that have traction and indeed having to consult the media industry on how best the SPI could serve them without compromising the Institute’s independence and mission to run courses and programmes that are based on sound theory and practice. While we have expanded our short courses and more media workers are thus attending them, and we have increased the PDMM intake from four at the PDMM’s launch in 2004 to about 14-23 students a year, we could do with more people attending these courses and the PDMM.

SM: The SPI clocks 12 years of existence this year – 10 years of them offering the PDMM since 2004 -- where do you intend to steer the ship?

 

FM: The challenges are many and varied, and I have already outlined most of them earlier. But the single biggest challenge for the SPI is to be more proactive and responsive in effectively addressing the education and training needs of a rapidly changing media landscape.

We are seeing a new era in which traditional media companies that have in the past been successful financially are suddenly facing an existential threat of how to remain relevant to survive the fluid and permanently changing market conditions;  where technology is redefining these companies’ business models which have worked for many centuries; where technology is impacting what news content is and how it is being distributed, to who, by whom and when; where technology is changing the consumption behaviours and patterns of people who were once known as audiences and how to ‘monetise’ these shifting audiences on a media company’s multi-platforms, and so on.

One of the lasting lessons for traditional media and indeed all organisations across the world emanating from the twenty century is that, paradoxically, the more successful an organisation becomes, the greater the danger that it will fail because of complacency and the failure to see, let alone, embrace far-reaching change. This is what in business management is known as the Icarus Paradox. It is taken from a Greek mythical character of the same name who, because he had become successful in flying with wings bolted onto him with wax, disregarded his father’s advice and flew too close to the sun. His wings melted and he crashed down to his death.

 

Media companies across the world used to be literally minting money because they operated in an environment of economic scarcity in terms of the limited numbers of these media firms. Now, thrust into an environment of economic abundance where audiences and advertisers have too many media platforms and choices of the digital era, traditional media have been slow to see this change coming, even offering free content on the internet at some stage with no strategic thinking of why they were doing this and how they could make money out of it.

When News Corporation chief Rupert Murdoch started talking about the need for media companies to erect ‘pay walls’ for their digital content subscribers in early 2000, many in the industry and the academy thought he was crazy. But look at what has happened since then. Many media firms have copied his example at the Wall Street Journal, The London Times and Sunday Times. The most successful ‘pay walls’ – that is, ‘pay walls’ that are beginning to bring in substantial revenue when measured against revenue from traditional print advertising – are, however, those at the New York Times, the Financial Times in London and the Wall Street Journal, and not the ‘pay walls’ of many newspapers across the world. Why? Primarily because the media firms have credible content that is trusted, is needed and is wanted by their audiences; they have content which people can use (i.e. the utility of content); and content which adds value in many ways to the lives and work of their audiences.  It’s not good enough for a media firm to be just on several platforms, including digital; it has to have great and credible content. This is what media companies are selling – in fact, they are essentially selling their reputation and trust that they have developed with their audiences over time.         

SM: The SPI and its partners have been at the forefront in training women as media managers and leaders. How successful have these efforts been in trying to redress the gender inequality gap that exists in the media industry?

 FM: I think we have been successful if you look at the resources in the form of scholarships that we have had. All the past 21 OSISA (Open Initiative for Southern Africa) women scholars, all the five Primedia women scholars and many others who included a mix of women and men sponsored by MTN have successfully graduated with a PDMM. Most of these scholars are now in influential positions in media across Southern Africa and are at the forefront of trying to transform their workplaces to improve staff diversity, they are designing and implementing policies that purposefully entrench gender equality and equity in their work places, and they are leading efforts to mainstream gender into the news content of their media firms.

But these numbers are really a drop in the ocean when you look at the scale and the entrenched nature of the challenge that we are trying to address in the newsrooms of Southern African media. We are therefore in talks with OSISA, Primedia and other potential scholarship-givers to try to increase markedly the number of women PDMM graduates so that these graduates’ impact, over time, could be felt in most newsrooms of Southern Africa. Indeed, we appeal to all organisations and individuals who share our vision of gender equality and equity in the media and who believe in the importance of this project to come forward and be counted among those organisations which made a difference to a just and urgent cause.