HOT!media: Hot Spot Journalism

Children with big eyes and swollen bellies. Flashes of gunfire and “tribal” warfare. Refugees fleeing countries by the thousands. These images have become media clichés and maintained Africa’s reputation as the Dark Continent. Since the end of the Cold War, Africa’s perceived strategic importance to the U.S. has waned — and so has specialty news coverage of the continent.

The three major American specialty publications on Africa — Africa Report, Africa Notes and Africa News Service — all folded by the end of 1996, citing dwindling subscriptions. The defunct publications targeted an audience of Africa scholars, foreign policy specialists, and businesspeople with interests in Africa, but they were also a crucial read for journalists. Reporters who cover Africa now lack the in-depth analysis from publications like Africa Report that gave them context for their own stories.

“I can’t tell you how many journalists from the mainstream publications came to see me before going to Africa,” says Margaret Novicki, who edited Africa Report from 1983 to 1995. Novicki says she set up interviews for reporters, answered their questions and helped U.S.-based journalists with the difficult task of filing stories about events they hadn’t seen unfold. Journalists also used her magazine and others like it as a basis for story ideas. “I think it’s really a shame, and there’s a big gap [in available information on Africa] now,” adds Novicki.

Elaine Windrich, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Africa Studies Center, finds that the U.S. government and intelligence community are much less interested in Africa now that the Cold War is over. As a result, she argues, funds are scarce in the Africanist community — whether grant money for graduate students to study African languages, or subscription revenues for publications that focus on the continent.

“Every government department and agency would have been buying copies of [these publications] for their staff to use because it’s cheaper than to send a person to Africa. They can just use someone else’s research,” says Windrich. “So there’s a big subscription subsidy which would have gone to Africa Report and probably Africa News too.”

“We are tied up very much in the Cold War dropping away,” says Steve McDonald, executive vice president of the African-American Institute and former publisher of its respected Africa Report. Government agencies and private think tanks, traditional supporters of the Institute, have cut their funding in the post-Cold War period, says McDonald, but prior funding commitments kept the Institute from feeling the bite until recently. “We dropped from a budget of $36 million in 1994 to $20 million now.”

One result is that instead of digging into the underlying problems — land reform, international trade and the roots of ethnic divisions — behind the wars and starvation, journalists without an immediate famine or genocide to cover have fallen back on a standard fixation: elections. Easy to report and with an established and unquestioned news value, these have become the beacons of press coverage in Africa. The problem is, even more so than in the U.S., elections tend to be more about image than action.

“It is so clear in Africa that elections are superfluous to the lives of people,” says Beverly Hawk, editor of the African Studies Association’s journal, Issue. “In the poorest half of the world, the government is already compromised by international business. No matter who you elect you’re not going to get land reform.”

But while the analysis provided by the specialist press is missing, there is a new bright spot emerging — the Internet. Online resources about Africa — including a number of local newspapers and Africa News Service, which folded its print publication in 1993 — are providing news straight from the continent. Unlike the specialty publications, which offered a U.S. perspective on African events, much of the news emerging online is published in Africa, but available to anyone with Internet access.

“I think the Internet has more than replaced [hard copy] media,” says Robert Myers, a former Africa specialist with the World Bank. Myers subscribes to the electronic newsletter Tanzania News Online, and trades it with a friend who buys its sister publication, Malawi News Online. Internet subscriptions are easier to share than hard copy ones, he says, and can be exchanged as easily between colleagues around the world as those around the block.

Novicki, too, is optimistic about the future of Internet publishing on Africa, noting that low publishing costs are especially important to nonprofit Africa watchers. But she points out that the medium is still a tool of the privileged, not yet available to many of the Africans who once read the defunct publications. “How many people have access to the Internet?” she asks. “Maybe a lot here in America, but in Africa, it’s another story.”


Here’s a list of places to look for Africa news on the Web.


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