Newspapers Still Relevant in Africa: The Star CEO

Published on 21st April 2014

“As most of you know, I run the Star newspaper in Kenya which we started in 2007 with some Kenya shareholders. However I am also the managing director of Capital Radio in Uganda which Patrick Quarcoo and I started with local shareholders in 1993. In 2000, Patrick moved to Nairobi to start Kiss FM and start our Kenyan operations. So we have done both print and electronic media, but today I will focus primarily on print because that is where, I believe, media faces its greatest challenge.

I started in journalism in 1978 working on small magazines. In those days pages were made up using phototypesetting, and then plates were produced using films from ‘process cameras.’ Only the printing press today is recognisable. Now we design pages on screen and output them straight to plate.

The staff from Uganda Times, who I found when I came to the New Vision in 1986, harked back to an even older era – the use of hot metal to create the typefaces and blocks for the press. The New Vision even had a redundant hot metal typesetter that we sold for scrap a few years later.

We have lived through a technological revolution in the last 25 years.
And that revolution is not over yet.

Why are newspapers important? 

They help us work towards the truth. There is a protocol that we follow of reporters collecting news and then being cross-checked by sub-editors and editors. That protocol is not followed on the Internet which is now the main alternative source for news, where any blogger or writer can present his or her version of events that may be true or false. We do not know.

Look at the stories around the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines plane. Probably it is under the Indian Ocean, but there are also sorts of conspiracies theories online, that the plane was hijacked by the USA and flown to Diego Garcia, etc. Those Internet stories are just opinion.The same applies to citizen journalism. Stories submitted by citizens can be a great contribution, but they only become truly valuable when they have been examined and checked by editors to confirm them, or contextualise them by attributing the source.

But if a story is in the Monitor or New Vision, we assume that it is true, or likely to be true, because it is has been validated by a process, by the editors. That is important because political and social debate will be based on agreed facts that eventually some consensus will be reached. It is also important because it provides a historical record, a factual record to which future analysts can refer.

For instance, recently Henry Gombya has published in his internet site, The London Evening Post, so-called confirmation that Salim Saleh ordered the killing of Andrew Kayiira in 1987. He quoted an unnamed NRA officer as his source. But in reality this is a one man story. The story has not been interrogated by anybody. How true is it?

If you go back to file copies of the newspapers of the day, you will discover many mysteries that are not mentioned by Gombya. In particular, Gombya, by his own admission, had large bundles of money on his bed at the time. And he managed to escape over the gate after the attackers came to the house and killed Kayiira. At the time, the general view was that dissident members of Kayiira’s UFM were responsible.

What someone now needs to do is to go back to those newspapers from 1987 and look at what were the agreed facts at the time, and to look at where they confirm or contradict Gombya’s new version of events. I believe that objective analysis of all the information will show that there is a large element of wishful thinking in Gombya’s account.

Another area where it would pay to investigate past copies of newspapers is the war in the north. There are versions where academics or politicians claim this or that happened, or provoked following events. But there is an amazing amount of detail in the papers of the time, from reporters who were on the ground, including the New Vision’s late great Caroline Lamwaka, and who were close to what happened. I get annoyed reading academic treatises where there are assumptions about what happened in the past, where the writer has clearly not gone back to the newspaper archives. Someone should do that for the war in the north.

Newspapers set the news agenda. Electronic media and the Internet how have greater reach but newspapers drive the news agenda (for stories other than straight news stories). It is the deep stories in print - investigations, exposes, analyses - that very often are followed up in the TV or radio news, or in discussions by bloggers.

I personally don’t think newspapers will disappear completely. They provide a format where information is easily accessible. They provide in-depth news and analysis. Longer articles can be read more easily on paper than online, according to research at Columbia University. Anne Nelson tested her students and found they remembered and absorbed more from reading the same article on paper than online.

Internet stories also tend to be very brief. The mindset of the Internet is brief. For in-depth stories, we will still need newspapers. But in a world of immediate, short, digital information, newspapers will become a minority product, read mainly by the intelligentsia, opinion leaders  who are willing to pay for a more in-depth news product. That’s why the Star’s slogan is Smart People Read the Star – we are trying to position ourselves to be that thinking person’s paper in ten years’ time.

The digital age

We are now in the digital age. The highest Average Daily Sale of the New Vision was just under 40,000 for the 1996 election. Now I think it is around 30,000. We are in the electronic age and the newspaper is not the first place to turn to get your news.

A huge problem with newspapers is the cost of physical distribution. The Star is a small newspaper in Kenya but it still costs us USh 180 million per month to transport it around the country.

The world still needs verified, factual news stories. But that checking process costs money.

The Star has a readership of its daily print newspaper of about 300,000 people, but it has over 1 million unique visitors online. Our advertising income in the print paper is around Ush1.2 billion per month, our advertising revenue on the Internet site is around Sh10 million per month.

This is unworkable. The print paper is paying for the huge free readership of the Internet. At some point Internet readers must start paying for content. This conundrum is destroying newspapers around the world, although in Africa we are probably 10 years behind the digital wave and we have time to find the solution. Probably that solution is some kind of micro-charging for each story that is read.

Conclusion

  • Get a strong online news site
  • Keep your print product going, and keep it full of quality content that readers will be prepared to pay for.
  • We are living in a super-fast age. Keep your stories concise and full of information. People don’t have time to waste.
  • Above all, KEEP THE FAITH. Keep producing detailed factual stories that have been cross-checked and balanced with both sides. Remember you are creating history. You are defining society. Unless journalists perform this vital task, society will lose its self-awareness, its consciousness, its sense of direction.”

By Mr William Pike,

CEO of The Star Publications in Nairobi.

Keynote address at the inaugural Uganda National Journalism Awards.


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