Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My snow boots, and me

 By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

It has been snowing in New York City for over six weeks now. I am told it is the harshest winter the City has experienced in about 20 years. It has been inconsistent though, with intermittent sunshine and sometimes sleet rain.

It is my first experience of snowy weather and the first time that I physically saw and felt snow. The first time it snowed early in the morning, I peeped throw my window excitedly. Apparently, I wasn't the only adult fascinated by snow. When I went out that evening I saw some adults playing and rolling in snow. I also collected and took some snow home!

Well, if you haven't seen snow before, look into your fridge or freezer, the ice flakes you see in there closely resemble snow, and if you have ever been in a butcher's storage facility, it feels something like walking in snow.

When in September I was advised to get a snow boot as I would need it, I spoke to a friend in Europe about it, but this friend said, I didn't need a snow boot. "You should be fine with your sneakers," the friend said. But I realised sooner that indeed, I needed a snow boot. Wearing a snow boot when it is snowing or raining of sleet isn't the same as wearing an ordinary pair of shoes or sneakers.

Anyway, I went ahead and bought the snow boot. The popular brands on the market are quite pricy, so I searched hard till I got one that was reasonably priced and I bought it. My earlier hesitation to get one was also due to the fact that I wouldn't need it when I go back to Ghana. But I am glad I got it finally. It is insulated and is made of some rubber making it waterproof and it keeps the feet warm. The other day I stepped into sludge without knowing and I was fine. An ordinary shoe or sneaker would have been soaked and I don't want to imagine how cold my feet would have felt that evening on 114th Street on Broadway.

The winter is getting grimmer, but I am getting used to it and having a snow boot increases my chances of attending classes and getting into town whenever it snows and I necessarily have to go out.

And for some of you who might know about the business news website that I started five years ago, it has been offline. has gone offline temporarily.

I have received several mails including phone calls from some visitors to the site expressing disappointment over the shut down. It wasn't an easy decision to make but it was the only reasonable one under the circumstances.

Meanwhile, as the calls and mails that I received from some of the readers emphasised the importance and relevance of the site which incidentally though, is the only major source of business news out of Ghana, that view did not reflect the position of the advertising community.

The site has to be suspended because of rising costs of running it from a shoe string budget that largely had to come from me, after I have sunk my entire savings into starting and running it after sometime.

Over the five years that the site has been running, traffic has been growing exponentially, and the database has also grown, requiring bigger more efficient servers and services that my meager resources are unable to finance any more. I have become tired depending on the goodwill of some friends and family who have been very supportive along the way. It became impossible to hire skilled writers and programmers because the site does not generate revenue - it is not breaking even.

The business model based on pursuing good quality journalism, building high traffic and then generating revenue from advertising didn't seem to have worked.

The site indeed, achieved remarkably high respect and acceptance worldwide, evidenced in some modest achievements for myself and some of the people who have been working with me, making sacrifices to keep it running. We have been invited to cover and participate in international meetings, workshops and press conferences. Articles on the site also won national awards including an international journalism fellowship - the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship in Business and Economic Journalism at the Ivy League institution - Columbia University in the City of New York.

Since the suspension of publishing of the website, I have been reflecting deeply over not only the future of the site, but the future of journalism in Ghana. Any objective observer of journalism in Ghana in general and business journalism in particular would know that all is not well. Not much can be said of the quality of journalism in Ghana, despite the presence of some very well trained journalists and good editors.

Notwithstanding a constitutional provision that gives journalists protection and the freedom to do their work, most journalists are unable to exercise those freedoms without any encumbrance because the dynamics of media ownership makes it impossible to do so. Most owners of media organisations have more political rather than journalistic goals for establishing these news organisations and they mostly use them for their political objectives, and this has reduced discussions in the media to partisan levels. It is more impracticable for most journalists to focus on news worthy issues, write critical and probing editorials than for them to focus on what politicians are saying or have to say on issues even if what they have to say is foolish.

The least said about the state of business news the better. Business newspapers or business news segments on radio or TV are mostly public relations or advertorials promoting one product or company or some business person. For instance, most news organisations carry what they call 'Stock Exchange News' that only report the stocks for the day. There are hardly any critical and objective examination of company stocks or conduct of stock brokers.

Another example is the fact that, even though Ghana has found oil and has been producing oil in the last three years, there isn't a strong focus and adequate informed coverage of the sector. Most of what is published about the oil sector is often from oil companies themselves or government, even though there are more questions than answers in the oil sector - there is no transparency, nor accountability either by government or the oil companies, both operating offshore or onshore and there is corruption.

The six telecoms companies operating in the country are having a field day ripping off subscribers and providing poor quality service. Vodafone, which bought the state-owned Ghana Telecoms including fibre optic facilities that the government has invested in has now decided to curtail access to broadband Internet to subscribers by 'capping' Internet, eventually making excessive profits. It has also failed to expand landline services in the country, in spite of the fact that it is one of the terms for selling the national carrier to it. But Vodafone's conduct is not being scrutinized in the media.

Journalists dare not probe into the activities of these companies or they would threaten to pull out advertising from their organisations, often leaving the 'small fishes' at the mercy of journalists. Not that 'small fishes' should not be exposed when they break rules and endanger everyone else, but there must be fair coverage under all circumstances - which isn't the case. For instance, it is more likely that a rich and well connected person could commit murder and it would never make the news even if journalists get the information - but more likely to see a poor unconnected 'petty' thief exposed and when arrested sometimes, paraded before TV screens and in newspapers.

As the site goes into hiatus, I am looking forward to exploring further, other means of making it sustainable and then reviving it, even though, after working for 23 years as a journalist and contributing extensively to the global information database and to my country, I don't know how many people I have touched or inspired in my career path, but I do hope that I have somehow touched some people and inspired other journalists. Sometimes I feel that I have done my part - like the Akan proverb says, "humans came to play their parts and not to do all."

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