My Vision of a Pan-African News Network: How a Dream Crashed and Burned
Well, kids, this is why we can’t have nice things.
Because there’s always someone who won’t bust their ass to put in the work and thinks you can get by with the cheap product.
This is a rant, by the way. I have pushed for ages for a Pan-African news network, a T-Rex in Africa that would be able to compete with BBC World and Al Jazeera, that would tell stories from African perspectives.
Well, not long after I got back from six weeks in Ethiopia, I was approached by a couple of people who supposedly wanted to make the dream happen, and no, I will not drop names. As pissed off as I am at them (and imagine Mount Etna spewing off the top of my pale dome), this isn’t about them as people. It’s about values. Or lack thereof. And incompetence. And my own damn naivete.
We had a video chat months before that went nowhere. A mutual contact had lured me back to talk to them again, even though I said, “Why am I bothering? They wasted my time.” But okay, we had another video chat, this one more encouraging. They seemed to like what I had to offer, my ideas, my vision. There were only two other founders; let’s call them Media Guy and Finance Guy. Media Guy doesn’t even come from a news background, but somehow managed to build a passably competent news brand in Ethiopia, for which we would have built on its name. I had strong private reservations about this fellow, as nice as he was, being our CEO as he had such limited experience, but as I told him in a separate call, “Your job is to keep the lights on and make sure the damn sales people deliver.”
I felt more confident in Finance Guy, as he had been involved in various high-profile ventures in Ethiopia, including banking stuff and apparently had connections with other countries’ governments as well.
So yeah, we had that second video chat. I told them very bluntly that if I were to lead the news operation as Managing Editor/Head of Content and Chief Operating Officer, if anyone ever interfered in how I run things or our editorial stance on events, I would walk. They said yes, that’s fine.
The first alarm bell that went off in my head was Media Guy thinking we should start small, with only the Addis Ababa bureau, which would hardly be a damn Pan-African network, if you only had one operation on the continent. Besides, we were supposed to be approaching investment whales for $20 to $30 million. Fortunately, Finance Guy sided with me on this. But then Finance Guy questioned the idea of having an HQ in New York City. I won’t bother to debate that here, as I put that into a document that I’m now making available, but ugh… Fine, we cross that hurdle.
Another alarm bell that went off was over-confidence. In a separate phone call, Media Guy was so convinced, just as Finance Guy had been with our collective phone call before, that the money was out there. There would be “no problem at all” raising the capital for this venture. Well, that’s very optimistic, and while I’m not a business person, I have been involved in a couple of start-ups, and it’s been my humbling experience that no — nobody just hands you over a loading pallet of cash to spend on studios, cameras, etc. without wanting a honking big chunk of equity and a return on their investment.
Nevertheless, I got down to work. The results are in this separate Medium piece here, excerpts from the original pitch document that I emailed to my fellow “founders” March 9. I sweated over staff complements in bureaus, I tried to figure out how many soundproofed editing bays we’d need, hell, I can tell how we’d even decorate the newsroom bullpen if you want me to. This would be the very first opening images if the network went to air. Hopefully, you can picture it:
I also prepared a second document. I’ve been a TV producer, but I sure as hell don’t delude myself that I know all about editing software, the best cameras to use, what we should charge for national commercial spots in what market, etc. Somebody had to go out and research that shit. Here’s a screen shot from the second document, emailed March 19, the kind of thing I knew we needed to pin down:
Finance Guy assured me he had a whole team of people who could do that. I suggested that he get back to us with hard numbers within a couple of weeks. He responded by writing, “Two weeks may be a bit short to do a proper job,” but nevertheless, he would go through the documents carefully and assign a team.
Finance Guy then emailed us days ten days later, “It’s taking a bit of time to get the feasibility report moving as I’ve been having conversations with various potential participants/contributors to the kind of well researched, analyzed and documented report…” And he was talking to other broadcasting executives…! What the f…?
I emailed politely back, “What is to stop them from either a) poaching some of the concepts disclosed to them by necessity to get their advice? b) at least getting tipped off that they should ramp up in advance of our enterprise being formed and trying to mount their own contender?”
“I understand what you’re saying, Jeff,” he responded, “but all parties I’m contacting are people I am doing other business with and are personal friends as well… None of these people are even a remote threat in terms of setting-up a competing operation.”
Ohhhhh-kay. At this point, what choice did I have? Gawd only knows what he was sharing, but I had to trust him. More days pass.
Then early this afternoon — the same afternoon I’m writing this — the three of us got together for another video call. It was Finance Guy’s meeting. He started by saying that he had consulted his pal at a consulting company, who supposedly “knows” about such things and handles media buy-ins for networks for Africa, and Mr. Consulting persuaded Finance Guy that cable was losing market share to digital, and if you go on BBC or Al Jazeera, there aren’t that many ads, and both these networks are heavily subsidized by the British government and Qatar respectively.
“Well, that’s complete, utter bullshit,” I interrupted. And I pointed out that I watch BBC World every day. Almost religiously. I offered to go into my living room, switch it on, and they could wait while I tallied up the spots for Turkish Airlines, plus Canadian advertisers buying into the time bloc, the sponsors of the Travel Show, and on we could go. As I pointed out in a later email to them, Fox News ain’t friggin’ subsidized. Neither is CNBC or MSNBC or CBSN.
The issue was not and never has been cable versus digital, as Media Guy had made a case that we go try both. I wasn’t even that married to launching cable. What pissed me off is that this consulting guru, while probably sincere, was so incredibly ignorant about the current media landscape, and that our fellow founder could have known that if he had bothered to go out and get the fucking work done that we had agreed he should do. Hard numbers from American and European specialists — not “advice” from his drinking circle.
Finance Guy was taken aback by my vehement objections but wanted to get on with his briefing. I tried to be patient.
But he then claimed that his good consulting buddy said we wouldn’t need the kind of staff complements I had outlined, that reporters could go out and just shoot on their cell phones…!
Let me take you through how incredibly offensive this was and still is.
Finance Guy, my presumed collaborator, had accepted a document I spent days putting together which even involved me researching industry-standard cameras and what was being used these days in the field. It couldn’t offer numbers, but it had some technical information based on what I know is being used in many Western markets. But hey! To hell with all that, he preferred to ask his pal. Why trust the person you’re supposed to be founding a business with and who has spent more than 35 years in journalism, a good portion of them in television with major networks?
Then there’s the complete lack of respect for what camera operators do, and how they have their own ways of telling a story visually, and how no, you can’t just substitute that with a reporter whose primary concern is the words.
Then there’s the fact that I even put into the second document the recommendation that reporters be issued a specific model of Samsung phone that I took with me to Ethiopia or a more recent model as a back-up. But certainly not as your primary camera. Why? Because as good as the camera is, with a very solid omni-directional mike, you still need a good microphone attachment. (You can see some of the limitations of the model even in reports I produced for Arts TV this past December and January.) So no, you can’t just hand reporters a bloody cell phone and say, Off you go! You also still need to edit that stuff, which generally requires something like Avid video editing software that can handle 4K, you should have a tripod because the “stabilizing” function on your software can only do so much and how are you going to do stand-ups without it as you’re the only one there, and you’ll need additional lights… and no, just no.
If you want to build an international television network and want to be taken seriously by the outside world, you sure as hell don’t start one by saying, “Oh, we don’t need to buy cameras.”
Yes, you fucking well still do. And you will need to for at least several more years.
Let me enlighten you on why that will be, and it has nothing to do with technical needs. I don’t care if your iPhone can shoot the next bloody Marvel Phase 4 blockbuster, and it comes with its own flippin’ Andy Serkis motion-capture app, okay? I don’t give a shit. The reason will be professional and psychological.
I was at Timket. You can see the results of my shoots on YouTube. And you know what? On the second day, I was jostled and pushed and mildly insulted and bullied by a couple of folks who clearly, deeply resented that I had snagged a primo spot for observing events. That’s because they assumed I was just another shmuck with a cell phone, shooting things the same way they did. You could hardly blame them — they didn’t know. How could they? All I had was my phone. But I wasn’t there to be a tourist, I was there to work. And I didn’t shoot video the way they did, I was shooting for a television network. You can see for yourself the very obvious deference given to news crews at events with all their elaborate gear, a kind of understanding that has nothing to do with country, culture, whatever. Folks don’t push them out of their way.
Journalists need that insulating bubble to work.
But what made me tell these guys today to lose my number was the obvious and infuriating slide into the cheap-ass, cheapskate mentality. The notion that you can get away without the quality and the sincere commitment to quality you need.
I have visited several television network studios in Addis — I’ve yet to see one that has a proper, professionally fitted soundproofed editing bay. There’s an editing room I’ve been in where it’s amazing they get anything done at all because the construction noise from nearby is booming through a closed window (ironically, the editor I worked with was the fastest I’ve ever seen, and I would poach her in a heartbeat for a position with the network if that was still happening).
I looked at all these conditions and thought, Okay, they do the best with what they can, and that’s how they started out. Your reporters would mutiny if you gave ’em an editing bay like that in London or New York. And you sure as hell won’t even find that in smaller regional stations. Hell, I even worked for several months for a broadcasting operation that turned out to be a Ponzi scheme with its founder going to prison, and we still had Western broadcast quality conditions and equipment. But the point is not that the Western operations are better, it’s that the African stations and networks deserve to have the same standards and high level of equipment and facilities!
And if you cheapen that, if you cut corners, if you say, “Oh, we can get by with just this…” Sorry, but I have a whole string of ugly expletives for you.
I vented to a beloved media colleague and friend this afternoon, and she said with insightful wisdom, “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
And they are probably rationalizing to themselves right now that I am perhaps some kind of hothead. But I completely understand how a business needs to generate money. And having worked in news for most of my life, I know you can still do that by making a quality product. Given how Africa is getting treated by other news networks, it’s not just a matter of good business strategy to present a smarter, better alternative, it’s the only moral choice open to you.
So, I was furious as I ended that video call. And I still am. I gently warned the others that they could no longer use my conceptual material, my intellectual property. But I have no way of protecting those ideas, so the only recourse I can think of is to put them out there.
There may be backseat critics who don’t like how I conceived bureau units or want to get snide about what I deemed areas of focus or the countries where I thought we should start (of course, we wanted to eventually cover the entire continent). Maybe there are those who think my show ideas are dumb. To which I invite all of them to go work in television, get some start-up capital and do it better.
This was my vision — what’s yours? Help give Africa the international news network it deserves.
Hopefully, we agree there badly needs to be one.