Growing up, like many children, I wanted to be many things including a geologist, a historian, a literature writer, a lawyer and a journalist. But two choices in that sea of confusion were consistent in my list and stood out like a sore thumb: A lawyer and a journalist.
The winds blew me towards a career that I had loathed passionately. While I chose commerce in form three in High School and I generally did well in it, my THEN patriarchal mindset relegated it to a career for women. I cannot explain how I ended up in a field I loathed so much and to make matters worse, I soared in it like an eagle. That is how I got to know which careers pay well in this country.
Courtesy of a job I held in a leading financial institution in Kenya as a marketing officer, I got to interact with many payslips raging from those of engineers, accountants, and journalists among others. I had always admired the technical people because growing up in a Luo home if you didn’t dream of becoming a doctor, an engineer or even an astronaut, you were considered less authentic, an embarrassment to your family and a shame to the Luo gene.
You probably mixed with other tribes you met while your ancestors were walking along the mighty Nile as they moved with their cattle in search of better pastures. How can a Luo child not have a title worthy to be announced in meetings?
But like I’ve always said before, I always wanted to be a journalist. I had a way with words ever since I was young. Perhaps it was an adaptation gift from the gods to compensate for my small physique that couldn’t do manual jobs excellently. Neither could I fight to save my life so I defeated the giants in my school with my words that were sharper than a double-edged sword. The gift brought girls too (I will one day narrate how I started getting letters from girls when I was in lower primary school).
But I digress. From this point on, expect many generalities based on my personal understanding of the fourth estate in Kenya.
Working for that financial institution, I discovered just how poorly paid reporters are in comparison to those who work in media houses but perform ‘supporting’ roles. When the time came for people to borrow loans, as the contact person, most of them came to me for help. I helped out in calculating the amount of loan they can qualify for based on their incomes.
Before long, I was hit by shock you would think an 11 Kilowatt electricity voltage ran through my body. People from other departments e.g. administration, sales, digital etc. had heavier pay slips than the people who sustained these media houses with their content.
When I joined the fourth estate, it was common knowledge that the ‘termites’ in most media houses are paid simsim (Sesame) yet they do the donkey work.
It’s really heartbreaking when reporters who toil to bring news to the audience are paid peanuts while other supporting departments swim in money.
Though journalists should not put any value in fame as compared to socialites, we are not being fair when we expect a famous byline not to translate into better living conditions.
When I went for press conferences, the attires some reporters put on fascinated me. Tattered belts, torn & horrible looking shoes, and an unpleasant body odour marked a number of the events I covered. Some would say that these were quacks that infiltrated these events but even among the legitimate ones I knew, some of them were in terrible shape. While fashion is a personal choice, it’s not hard to spot a struggling demeanour.
I’m not saying this to mock or laugh at anybody. I was forced to write this out of compassion and to lend my voice in the hope that this article can trigger a conversation on the remuneration and job security of reporters especially the ones who are starting out.
These people are underpaid and work under very precarious conditions. It is very easy for a reporter to be laid off than for people from other departments to face the sack. Though this varies based on the organization you work for and an individual’s character, still two factors remain the same; most journalists are paid poorly in this country and their working conditions are horrible.
Reporters deserve better. Most of these people go beyond the call of duty to look for those extraordinary stories. Most of them are driven beyond riches. I can bet that even if they weren’t paid well, most of them would still do it anyway.
But that is no reason why we can’t demand better terms for these extraordinary individuals. Just because it has been like that as some would argue doesn’t mean it cannot be changed.
Quality of work
But then we forget that these conditions reflect in the final quality of work they churn out. To focus on doing an in-depth excellent work when basic needs stare at you like a hungry dog, must be as challenging as balancing a hot pot on someone’s head.
It is extremely hard to focus on ethics and resist brown envelope journalism when you can’t make ends meet at the end of the month. While an increase in pay cannot eliminate an appetite for brown envelope journalism, but a better working condition as proved by Herzberg’s motivation theory can actually boost the morale of an employee.
It’s not enough to want to write a story just so that we tick a box for our daily deliverables, we must ask ourselves whether the story can change people’s lives because that is the sole purpose why the fourth estate exists. But when we focus more on ‘she said he said’ stories because we are so caught up in the daily rat race of filing stories (which is very important by the way) but we don’t want to invest in in-depth reporting, we are reduced to a githeri media.
That’s why we are moving from one story to the other. No resignations, no continued pressure, we just touch and go. For journalism quality to grow better than it is currently, the first step is to provide better working conditions for journalists.