A massive shift has occurred in the newspaper industry, according to the recent World Press Trends report. The revenue that newspapers receive from selling their news to subscribers is now greater than the revenue they receive from advertising – something that has not been seen since the very early days of publishing.

“We can freely say that audiences have become publishers’ biggest source of revenue,” said Larry Kilman, Secretary General of WAN-IFRA.  Newspapers generated an estimated US $179 billion in circulation and advertising revenue in 2014 – larger than the book publishing, music or film industries. Of that, $92 billion came from print and digital circulation, while $87 billion came from advertising, the survey said. That’s huge and exciting.

In Africa, newspapers are still fairly profitable businesses. The growth of smartphone ownership, use of SMS, social media and access to mobile money are supplementing traditional mediums of distribution and opening new revenue streams. Despite these efforts, the media remains commercially dependent on government advertising  - a situation that has constantly undermined its editorial independence. In its recent report titled Broken Promises, The Committee to Protect Journalists highlights these concerns: “The government intrudes into newsgathering and dissemination, and advertisers hold sway over newsrooms,” the report says. The reality in newsrooms is that editors have to constantly weigh the cost of publishing a story. This situation has at times rendered journalists as passive stenographers, deliberately avoiding probing angles or putting stories into context, choosing instead to play up the drama of political noise which makes for good entertainment. Charles Obbo, Editor of South Africa’s The Mail and Guardian diagnosed this state of inertia in the Kenyan media as having reached “the establishment state,” a position of comfort where stability becomes more important than aggressive journalism that would be perceived to be muddying the waters and therefore threatening the media’s commercial interests.

Of concern to the Kenyan media is the determined drive by the Jubilee government to roll out an alternative advertising platform that would reduce government advertising spending – a move that would hit media revenues hard. Despite the doom and gloom, I think this is an exciting development. It’s a necessary and timely disruption, a vital process that starts to wean the Kenyan media from state advertising and redraws its relationship with the government and big private advertisers.

But the question remains, how does the media replace the lost billions?  One option that’s still unexplored in Kenya is a membership model. The model means a shift to focus on generating more revenue from news consumers. As Kilman put it, “This is a seismic shift from a strong business-to-business emphasis – publishers to advertisers – to a growing business-to-consumer emphasis, publishers to audiences.”

Religious organisations in Africa are some of the biggest formal organisations, with dedicated members who fund its activities. This model is built and sustained on trust. Fortunately, the Kenyan media is one of the most trusted institutions in the country.  In the IPSOS poll released in May, the media beat religious leaders in the confidence score. I did wonder if media execs noted the poll with interest, and whether they took time to ponder the implications. If they didn’t, then now is the time to probe further and understand why the media was ranked above spiritual leaders in a country that claims to be deeply religious. Only then can they strategise to take advantage of the growing disaffection in religious institutions and develop plans to convert the vote of confidence into shillings.

The high-profile cases and incidents of religious leaders behaving badly adds to the ongoing crisis in Kenyan churches and something has to give – the media has an opportunity to reap from the fallout. The membership model calls for greater transparency, and requires the media to constantly sell its vision, invest in quality programming and deepen its relationship with audiences, which ultimately fosters objectivity and public interest journalism.

This relationship with the audience would involve convincing them that the journalism produced would be meaningful to their lives and therefore worth investing in. News consumers would expect a journalism that is not beholden to politicians. They would expect professional journalists not to be enchanted by political power and would definitely frown upon the journalist caught ululating in admiration of politicians as we witnessed when the US president was in town recently. They would demand news that not only entertains, but informs and educates for the betterment of society.  American Professor Jeff Jarvis put it best, “..news should be seen as a service, not a product…journalists should measure their success not by column inches or by page views but by results: whether we, the public, know what we want and need to know.”