Newspaper crisis: Everything to gain by reinventing

“We need more enterprising editors and journalists in the newsrooms and less of political and commercial gatekeepers. An enterprising editor or reporter takes the initiative on a story and goes beyond and deeper than what is obvious”

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David Matende
Last month, the largest newspaper in Eastern Africa, Nation, made important changes in its editorial department in an attempt to boost what its boss, Tom Mshindi, described as “day two” journalism.
Earlier, one of Africa’s oldest newspapers, Standard, had overhauled the entire editorial staff, sending some of its top journalists into early retirement.
It is not difficult to see why the managers of the newspapers went back to the drawing board. Over the last decade or so, news from the newsstands has not been music to their ears – sales have been on a perpetual downward spiral, making the capitalists that own the papers an unhappy lot.
While the rain started beating newspapers worldwide long time ago, when radio first, and then TV stormed the news market, it’s the Internet and mobile telephones that are now threatening to do them in.
Where one had to wait for at least a day to read news, now one only needs to click, press or tap, and voila! These developments have left newspapers literally gasping for air.
But newspapers do not need to experience this agony because the era of print media is not over. Even in countries that embraced news technology long before Kenya did, newspaper business is still something to write home about.
The trouble with Kenya’s newspapers is that they are not only sluggards in innovation, but have also lost focus of the principles that make them unique and unbeatable as champions of public interest.
Evidently, editors whose idea on print journalism is antediluvian and not in sync with the expectations and demands of the modern readership, lead most of the newspapers.
Newspaper journalism is still the cream of journalism and with some imagination, editors can steer newspapers back to the respected position they clearly deserve.
Consumers of media are left puzzled as to why in this day and age, our newspapers still present, smug on the front page, news of the previous day as if it was hot news.
Newspapers should know that the “he/she said’ style of reporting is “past tense” in a country where a significant number of citizens access news via the many channels available to them. Stale news tastes worse than stale beer.
To save themselves from getting extinct, Kenyan newspapers must rediscover themselves. The first thing they must do is to stop focusing on news events and instead go big on investigative and watchdog journalism. Secondly, they should become masters of Day Two journalism, which can also be called analytic journalism.
The reason readers have respected newspapers for more than 200 years is not because they present news events; newspapers are respected because they watch over the powerful on behalf of the rest of us, because they act as a government watchdog.
World over, print journalists are regaining relevance by rededicating themselves to the dogged duty of vigilantly monitoring governments and exposing excesses.
No claim is being made here that only the print section of media should perform this sacred role; other media too have a responsibility. But print journalists have more time and space for detailed investigative reports.
But our newspapers are still stuck with news event journalism, routinely reporting the day‐to‐day events of politicians and government officials, and little else.
A good example of this slackness was the ruckus caused by President Uhuru Kenyatta last month when he announced that Kenya had entered into a special deal with Uganda in which, among other things, Uganda would export sugar to Kenya.
Citizens expected media, particularly print media, to go beyond reporting the accusations and counter accusations by politicians on who was (is) responsible for the mess in the sugar industry.
Like their electronic counterparts, for weeks, newspapers became excited over the melodramatic while ignoring the real issues behind the quarrels. Instead of providing us with riveting quotes that generated more heat than light, enterprising journalists should have dug out the rot, exposing both the officials behind the licensing of illegal importation of sugar and the businessmen involved.
We should know by now who is responsible for the bootleg sugar. But (at least by the time of writing this), no journalists had gone beyond the claims by politicians. Worse, no journalist had exposed the “secret” sugar deal Kenyatta is said to strike while in Kampala early last month.
In Kenya, where corruption and general incompetence is on the rise, newspapers should be doing roaring business feeding people with expose after expose of the malpractices in government and giving themselves an edge over their faster, sexier competition.
To do this, however, requires imagination and courage among both editors and journalists. The intrepid, old-school journalists with the energy to doggedly pursue corruption in government are badly needed.
To succeed in watchdog journalism, editors will have to invest in investigative reporting. Currently, there is no evidence that sufficient effort is put in ferreting out and exposing wrongdoing.
One hopes that both the Nation and the Standard have learned the lesson that the job of the news media is not merely to tell people what is happening. In an era where one need not be a journalist to pass over news via a mass medium, professional media must go back to the basics and ask themselves why they exist in the first place.
They must distinguish themselves by their truthfulness and by judging what facts need to be brought to the attention of the public so that the public can see through appearances to the real issues and motives that lie behind them.
To do this requires enterprise on the part of the editors. We need more enterprising editors and journalists in the newsrooms and less of political and commercial gatekeepers. An enterprising editor or reporter takes the initiative on a story and goes beyond and deeper than what is obvious.
Secondly, since newspapers cannot eschew news events completely, they must learn to report differently. To be fair, there have been attempts by major media to go beyond mere reporting of events. In other parts of the world, like the US, this shift started many decades ago. Now there is more interpretation than mere presentation of facts.
Newspapers have no choice but to continue travelling along this road. Given the relative luxury of time and the fairly big space they enjoy, they are in a good position to provide interpretations, analyses, context, or “in-depth” reporting.
It no longer makes sense for the press to simply publish facts .Journalists must completely embrace the business of supplying meaning and narrative. Reports that try to explain why, not what, should occupy more column inches than is the case now. Only this way, can newspapers remain relevant.
Finally, there has never been a better time for campaign journalism in Kenya than now. A society that is that evolving such as ours presents myriad social, economic and political dilemmas some which may require campaigning for at the mass media level.
Campaign journalism is when a newspaper or journalist takes up an issue and follows it through with a desired objective in mind.  While some of our newspapers have taken up issues and campaigned for their resolution – for example crime, road safety, drug abuse, abortion, etc, there are no full-hearted efforts on the part of the editors to take up issues on behalf of their readers.
Even where there have been efforts, the pursuit has hardly been relentless and only in few cases have campaigns ended in a resolution of an issue. Our newspapers also stand accused of campaigning mostly against issues that affect them directly – such as rallying support for action or lobbying for or against laws that affect their businesses.
There are many causes that people might want to take up, but do not have the resources to do so themselves.  Newspapers must keep their finger on the pulse of readers and respond to the social forces because they are a critical part of the democratic process.
Since campaign journalism is service journalism aimed at looking at the quality of life of readers, newspapers that embrace it find favour with the readers.  Campaigns to improve the lives of  readers are driven by the reality that only people at grassroots can change society, but would not do so spontaneously or even on their own.
Needless to say, even in pursuit of such campaigns, the principles that underpin good journalism must never be compromised. Any campaign must be based on facts and the truth, and should never be distorted to serve sectarian interests.
These suggestions are by no means the only ways newspapers can increase the circulation figures, but they are the best ways to ensure that newspapers remain relevant to the people they serve. Therefore the writing is on the wall for Nation, Standard, Star and People Daily: Change or perish.^
dmatende@yahoo.com

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