I recently experienced one of the most profound moments in my life. I was sitting in a classroom where two of the trainers teaching journalists how to cope beyond newsrooms had been the managers who hired me into the profession.
Mr David Aduda hired me at Nation Media Group (NMG) a decade ago. Some years later, Mr Joseph Odindo poached me to Standard Media Group in 2016. But, they were now both with the Aga Khan University Hospital Media Graduate School that was giving sponsored training to the scores of journalists rendered redundant by the decline of the media industry.
I muscled into journalism as a fresh graduate from Maseno University coming into the country’s capital city and a media profession that was bursting with opportunity and success.
In 2013 Kenya was making a rather calm political transition, the world had forgotten about the financial crisis. Anything seemed possible including printing money. I first interned at the NMG when it was making Kes13.3 billion in revenues and netting Kes2.5 billion in profits. You can imagine my surprise after going through intense interviews with psychometric tests and questions about quantitative easing (the new name of printing money) only to be handed a Kes7,000 contract.
Media lab programme for journalists
But I believed in the calling, I remember visiting KTN in high school and Nation while in the university and telling myself, I will one day work where Whispers worked; he marveled at us when we were young. Knowing I lived in a derelict around Kariobangi where I paid Kes5000 rent, I still signed the dotted line and then swore my father and sister into underwriting the risk.
And it paid off, I walked into a vibrant newsroom and got to meet and work with Ken Walibora. I sat at Migingo, incidentally the desks that bordered off the Ugandan’s Onyango Obbo and Daniel Kalinaki. Back then the newsroom was so vibrant it went to universities and picked the best writers in a media lab programme which in my year brought into the mix talented writers like Jacquiline Kubania, Cornel Ngare and Waga Odongo to our desk.
I tell anyone who cares to listen at how I have witnessed the industry transform. At the time, us interns were never assigned computers. So we would hang around the driver’s seats and wait for ‘Mayor of Migingo’ to go to Parliament or some other senior journalist to go for an assignment, before we could pounce on their desks and do those little briefs no one knew who wrote them.
But by the time I left the newsroom, I was surrounded by four empty desks that if I wanted I could write an introduction in one and conclude my story in another of those unused stations where such and such a colleague used to sit. Where are they?
I found some of them while attending the Beyond newsroom training at the Aga Khan University and on the first day of the training right in front of me was Mr Aduda and Mr Odindo. They said they had transitioned themselves, and were now passing on the wisdom of experience to us.
I was at the shadows of the party to see Mr Odindo retire at NMG and I had felt at the time, that this was what media success looked like. The charming speeches, laced with festered vitriol celebrated him and he seemed almost amiable to what seemed an inevitable goodbye.
Business convergence, digital reorganizations
Since then journalists have not been given such lavish send offs, instead they have been announced in internal memos and regular cycles of redundancies, business convergence and all manner of digital reorganizations. Exits have become a matter of industry anxieties; the despair, the uncertainty and anger for having loved the a dogs life and being rejected over a cursory letter, a phone call, an entry pass that loses access or a disabled email address.
But turns out Mr Odindo took it just as hard as all of us did when we left the newsroom. He made a short return to the industry at Standard and then left again and is now a trainer at the Aga Khan. For the veteran, the lesson through it all had been to remember who he really was. Just a good editor who did his work diligently and through the years managed other editors and later a newsroom. He said he never forgot who he was beyond the titles and therein lay his strength.
And as he sought himself in the shock therapy that is retirement digging through piles of old documents, the sound of a distant headmaster signing off his report card saying “Joseph is capable much more’ lent him the courage to try new things.
But tell that to a bunch of depressed former journalists thrown into the tailspin of sudden joblessness. The struggles to meet rent and school fees, learning to take rejections from job applications, worried sick about lacking insurance and above all losing the power of a huge news organization. Journalism is a strange profession built around the façade of the glamourous television anchors, powerful owners, vibrant champions and international patronage. But once you step off, the entire network freezes you out.
But even in the midst of this despair, a bunch of journalists found solace in company and shared experiences of unuttered emotions. As we shared our stories and learned the limitations of our mindsets, opportunities that suited our skills and thinking, really thinking about our industry, it became apparent why it was so important for the Aga Khan to help the industry transition.
Newspaper model raised barriers of entry
Prince Karim Aga Khan who grew up in Nairobi and founded Daily Nation in the 1960s, has underwritten the media freedom and its success in the country for decades. The newspaper model is and has been archaic for years relying on central printing and physical distribution in a commercially expensive logistical network that raised the barriers of entry.
But the internet completely disrupted this distribution model replacing the newspaper with a mobile telephone and a computer screen, that virtually made anyone with an internet connection a potential journalist. And as quantitative easing money funneled towards speculative technology and social media experiments on customer targeting, a competitive advertising channel ate the media’s lunch. As advertising revenue dropped, the cost of maintaining media operations became increasingly difficult. Media houses reacted by cutting off some current costs, trimming staff numbers.
Over the decade, Nation media profits have been on a sharp decline from Kes2.5 billion in 2013 to Kes318 million last year. During this time its staff has reduced from 1980 to 1253 with just last week, the company announcing the second staff rationalization this year.
“We were too busy doing the traditional thing, we knew about the disruptions from technology but were engrossed in the product to make money for the employer that we ignored digital. We were so engrossed in competition for the little space doing what we had done for so long,” Mr Odindo said.
As it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest, as the media business shrunk so did the interest of its benevolent founder. As the newspaper model began to collapse, Aga Khan’s interests shifted elsewhere, to his more profitable businesses including the Aga Khan Hospital, the Serena hotel chain, insurers and a Kenyan bank.
Using advertising to leverage friendly coverage
Inevitably politicians took advantage of the dire straits of the media using advertising like corporates to leverage friendly coverage. The government first piled pending bills, then removed the advertisements turning them into an internal MyGov pamphlet and negotiating downwards the cost for the leading newspapers to carry it as an insert.
As the handshake extended beyond the elbow, so did the pressure to push out dissenting journalists like Dennis Galava and Godfrey Mwampembwa (Gaddo) that gave the Aga Khan bad press for his acquiescence. Like the Children of Gebelawi, we wondered what he thought as he watched the empire crumble right in front of our very eyes.
At Standard, the decade had been disastrous. The company only made profit twice over ten years and it has been trimming its workforce to about 871 last year. In some of the most edited stories in newsrooms, these results were glossed over while the company first struggled to pay correspondents; contract writers who earn on each published story by its length. The industry silence continued even as the late salaries finally hit permanent staff and has continued for the better part of this year.
Kenyan newsrooms have always had a rift among its editors as elections drew closer. But given the depth and versatility of the newsroom these biases balanced out. And like the country, the rifts created by politics were quickly sewn back after elections as the media swam in money from advertising, civic education and campaigns.
But as the job cuts slid off the fat flesh and came close to the bone, it turned the editors on each other in a battle for survival, pushing off one after the other in a game of musical chairs that made it more slippery at the top deck. As the depth and versatility narrowed, so did the political power to manage the media.
However weakened, newspapers are still important in manufacturing consent. And politicians fancy if they can weaken its role in keeping them in check, it can still be important in pushing propaganda. The politicians, like vultures, have also gone on a rampage hiring scores of former journalists as they further weaken the fourth estate institution meant to keep them in check.
Future of media in small startups
But given an inch politicians rarely know when to stop. Trade Cabinet Secretary Moses Kuria went on a rampage insulting and threatening the media in what was endorsed by the highest office on the land as a fight back against bad publicity.
But the Aga Khan did not abandon his 1960 pursuit completely, he has seen the future of media in small startups and aggregated collaborations. Through a Masters Programme the university has been converting practicing journalists into all rounded players with skills for TV and Radio and producing for social media. The University Media Innovation centre has been offering grants of up to $20,000 to incubate media start-ups in Kenya and the region that is beginning to grow new media houses in the digital spaces.
In a study conducted among millennials (ages 25 to 35) and Gen Zs (ages 18 to 24) living in the country’s urban areas, the Aga Khan University Media Innovation Centre, declared that the emergence of digital platforms that are target casting and delivering content to niche audience segments is the future of journalism.
It was in such a start-up partly funded by Aga Khan that I began this journey towards Maudhui House. When I left the Business Daily my boss and editor, who had taught me how to write a complete story in four paragraphs, sent me off with this premonition. He said he had dreamed that I had come to market with a South African company and was hiring all the journalists who had been kicked to the curb.
Maudhui is not South African. It is Swahili for content. It is an idea that sprung from the gap in business coverage for alternate stories from the corporate newsrooms. It has grown and is now morphing into something of a news aggregator networking journalists who are out of newsrooms, offering them a public space for collaboration and building the newsroom of the future. Thanks to the advise and guidance of a longtime friend Mr Deepak Dave, we finally here have East Africa’s answer to Substack.
Audiences coalesced around individuals
As the digital disruption combed through the industry it shook the news business to the core. It was a different ballgame where they found speed was all that mattered. Suddenly what was produced during the 24-hour news cycle was stale by the time of going to press and soon audiences coalesced around individuals who were both fast and at times plagiarized their content.
Then Nation and Standard finally introduced their paywalls for premium content and when the numbers dropped, Nation pulled back. But while digital revenue seems small for the big companies like Standard making just Kes48.8 million in 2022, the revenues may mean a lot to the individual writers, enough to sustain them as independent journalists.
According to Nation Media, their paywall recorded over 61,000 individual subscribers in the first year of its launch in February 2021, with approximately 21,000 users paying to read content on a daily basis. Just a fraction of these numbers could sustain that former journalist who did his work out of just the love for the job. Those who find pleasure in writing will find that it can sustain them and those who find pleasure in reading will get stories that are told well.
While no one has the crystal ball on the future of the media industry; when you see your employer training journalists on how to live beyond the newsroom and a few days later announce yet another round of layoffs; and yet the second biggest media house is almost being auctioned, it looks precarious.
It should also be a wakeup call for readers who must ask themselves what the true cost of the death of the media will be. We must also be bold enough to answer, that good journalism has to be paid for. And maybe for just Kes20 your support to us, as we begin a series of prime content aggregated from various journalists across the country, to make Maudhui House the true house of content and hopefully the future of journalism.