Service to self: ‘Devolution’ of newspapers changing fortunes of media

That these newspapers have proliferated in two years shows that Kenyans have an appetite for news and information relevant to their unique situations

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newspaperBy David Matende
For the first time in Kenya’s history, there is a newspaper dedicated to reporting Turkana. The Turkana Guardian may not be the best edited newspaper, and neither does it claim any sophistication as far as production is concerned. But it is clearly a sign of the changed times, literally and figuratively.

The emergence of the Turkana Guardian, Vihiga Star, Gusii Times, Kirinyaga Star and Narok News, among other publications, is proof of the desire by people for local news, just as they desired devolution of government and resources.

That these newspapers have proliferated in two years shows that Kenyans have an appetite for news and information relevant to their unique situations.

If they succeed, these local newspapers could help change the negative perceptions of rural counties like Turkana created by national newspapers through decades of tragedy-obsessed reportage.

The pessimistic reporting of especially Kenya’s marginalised north has only succeeded in painting these places as “forlorn” , “far-flung”  and  “desolate” lands where bandits and cattle rustlers reign supreme, helped in no mean measure by drought, hunger and disease.

While northern Kenya suffers the most negative coverage (according to a study, 93 per cent of the news from these region is negative), the rest of rural Kenya is not treated any better.

Even with the introduction of county pages in the national dailies, there is little in form of inspiriting news from the rural counties. Typically, these pages are filled with either the bizarre and the tragic or the inane happenings at the county headquarters.

Yet there is a lot going on in the rural counties.  Ordinary people in, say, Taita Taveta, are doing extra-ordinary things. But the Daily Nation, The Star, et cetera, will never tell you this; it is not news!

Even vernacular radio stations that were expected to take a different approach to reporting news from the villages have failed to do so, with most of them simply repeating news reported by national media, or simply amplifying the usual shenanigans on the political stage.

Boost local economies
Matters are not helped by the fact that many of these vernacular radio stations are owned and run by people who live in Nairobi and who are only interested in the money generated from the commercial ventures of the radios.

This is why we should have strong rural newspapers, with online versions, of course. If they could be run well, these newspapers can play a significant role in boosting the local economies.

The  newspapers can bring “good news”—news of local projects and initiatives by ordinary  people,  county government  projects and policy statements by county leaders, enterprising local people, happenings at local associations, local sports and other cultural activities, progress in schools and colleges, local human interest stories,  and so on.

They can provide an opportunity to showcase businesses at this time when people should be shopping locally, investing locally and protecting local businesses. They can enable local businesses to reach their most likely customers.

They can enable people from different corners of the counties to understand and appreciate each other, in the process uniting them and helping them focus on common goals.

The newspapers can provide a forum for expression, and encourage civil, issue-oriented discourse.

They can also serve as a “watchdog” to hold elected leaders accountable. They can shine light on county governments, making public records available to citizens. They can help keep voters informed and allow them to see how their taxes are being spent.

This watchdog role should be stressed given that corruption and the misuse of resources is rampant in practically all the counties .These newspapers should be very busy checking on those in public office and help prevent those in power from overstepping their bounds.

They should position themselves in such a way that people would look up to them as their saviours against pervasive corruption, weak rule of law, and predatory or incompetent governments.

These newspapers should be able to attract advertisers – from both national and local businesses and institutions – and therefore become successful businesses. National companies such as mobile telephone companies, manufacturers of consumer goods like home care products, banks, among others interested in reaching grassroots populations should find these papers viable tools for reaching targeted markets.

But most importantly, local enterprises that would not normally advertise in the big newspapers now have an opportunity to display their goods and services in media that target the local market. These papers will be sustained by revenues from such advertising.

But they need capacity if they have to play this heroic role. For them to be the public’s eyes and ears, they must hire well trained journalists and acquire good facilities. These may require serious investment, but it will surely pay.

Needless to say, the newspapers should be run by people from the local communities who share values with the readers and understand the community because they are a part of it. Media not only gives people information and entertainment, but also affects people’s lives by shaping their opinions, attitudes and beliefs.

Development journalism
For many years national media have, by focusing only on the negative, the dramatic and the bizarre, distorted perception of the rural counties. Regional newspapers now have an opportunity to change this perception and help people build confidence in local abilities.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the government, with the help of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Unesco), set up rural newspapers in the then eight provinces to articulate issues relevant to the rural communities.

They flourished for a while, specialising in developmental journalism. But being state-owned, they soon fell prey to the whims of Kanu politicians and provincial administrators, and began to read like smaller versions of the defunct Kenya Times.

They also suffered lack of adequate funding after Unesco withdrew support that soon become irregular. It was only a matter of time before they folded. Whatever happened to the infrastructure like printing presses, only the officials at the department of information in the Ministry of Information and Technology can tell.

The setting up of eight state-run rural newspapers was a good effort that was badly executed – governments may not be particularly good at running newspapers.

Some county governments such as Vihiga are publishing their own newspapers, with the intention of telling their good news. But the progress of these newspapers is hampered by the bureaucratic nature of government funding. There is need to address such bottlenecks if these newspapers have to be published regularly.

However, private publishers are the best placed to undertake such initiatives. Each county should have at least one newspaper that articulates the hopes and aspirations of the local population.

Today the people of Turkana can tell their stories to themselves and to the rest of the country in the way they want them told – thanks to the Turkana Guardian. Other counties should follow suit.

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