Local takes on a global media revolution

May 19, 2010

It’s easy to become enchanted with the multimedia world of communications we live in. Every week, it seems, technology brings a new way for people to connect with one another and for journalists to tell stories.

But I’m reminded that this is not the case for much of the world—that the brilliant technologists and the daring entrepreneurs of “new media” tend to ply their trade in the developed world.

Actually, I was reminded of this by my editorial assistant, Jacqueline Bischof. Jackie hails from South Africa and after working with me for the better part of a year she will be returning this summer to her homeland, whose media industry will benefit greatly from her intelligence, creativity and energy. We’ve had numerous conversations about the implications the digital revolution has for the developing world, so I asked her to share some thoughts.

Over to Jackie.

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Audio slideshows. Streaming video. Flash graphics. Bandwidth- intensive sites.

Bischof picIn the two years that I’ve been living in New York City, studying my Masters at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and working, I’ve been absorbed by discussions around digital media and the way the industry has been both energized and intimidated by the potential of the Internet to host new forms of communication. I’ve seen some beautiful sites, fabulous interactive graphics and exciting digital tools that illustrate the powerful story-telling potential of the web.

Some of my favorite works were produced by Reuters staff: Larry Downing’s incredibly moving photo essay on Arlington Cemetery’s Section 60, the multimedia-rich and collaborative Thomson Reuters focus project exploring high frequency trading, and Finbarr O’Reilly’s latest work on poor whites in South Africa.

But while reading these works, and listening to the debates, I’ve struggled to shake one thought. What about people who have limited — even zero — access to these new digital tools? In places where bandwidth is expensive and slow? Are they being shut out of the conversation? What are the consequences of a global digital divide? The question has been around since the erratic growth of technology across the globe first began.

Internet World Stats records that as of the 31st of December, 2009, there were 1,802,330,457 people using the Internet. Of that number, about 86 million were in Africa — 4.8 percent of the world’s users. Internet penetration is less than nine percent of Africa’s population, compared to 76 percent in the United States. In fact, only 30 percent of the world’s population is currently online.

My home, South Africa, has a dual economy with both high and low Internet usage. A majority of people are still offline. For some, this is because there are no resources for access, and for others, it’s because the Internet has not come to completely dominate our lives as it has in the U.S. My nieces are almost teen-agers and their Internet usage is still limited to researching online encyclopedias. They’ve hardly been near Facebook, except to view my photos, and they’ve probably not yet heard of Twitter. This is not entirely out of the ordinary for the younger South African generation — we’re nowhere near the possible levels of addiction or dependency that are starting to show in the Western world!

When I arrived in the States, I went from having Internet access with capped bandwidth that I would hesitate to waste on downloading a YouTube video, to unlimited wireless access that made streaming video immediately accessible. I’ve been able to explore and view more online in the last two years than I could’ve imagined back home.

It seemed almost absurd to me to apply aspects of the digital media discussion to my home: With such low Internet penetration on the continent, what does the “digital age” – requiring fast, inexpensive bandwidth and speedy processors — mean to the majority of Africans? Where do we fit in this dazzling multimedia landscape, which both excites and distresses the media industry in the U.S.?

Over time I’ve come to realize that we do have a hand in this game. With the vast uptake of mobile phones and stunning examples of innovative use of technology on the continent, we’re participating — in our own way, African style. And the Internet has also allowed people on the margins to have access to the online world in ways previously unimaginable. Look no further than the work of BOSCO-Uganda, which recently won the Breaking Borders award for using innovative technology to expand access to information online. BOSCO’s original aim was to establish solar-powered communication lines between people in internally displaced camps in Northern Uganda — people who would normally be completely excluded from the global conversation. Kubatana, another winner, has used every medium possible to get its information out to Zimbabweans.

Necessity breeds innovation, and information is a necessity. Most people, according to a BBC World Service poll, believe Internet access is a fundamental right. People will find any way to get access to information, and journalists will find any way to provide it. That is a global truth I find incredibly inspiring.

Jackie Bischof is editorial research assistant to Dean Wright, Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Born and raised in Johannesburg, Jackie was an Michael and Ceil Pulitzer African fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and returns to South Africa to work as an administrative assistant on the Reuters World Cup desk.

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