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After Position Consolidation, It’s Now Growth, Expansion [interview]

The Observer newspaper made 10 years this week. In a media industry that tends to bury most newborns before their first birthday, this is an exceptional story.

Benon Herbert Oluka spoke to the man who has been in the hot seat since 2005, Managing Director, James Tumusiime, about the paper and the Ugandan media in general.

The Observer newspaper marks 10 years this week. As you reflect on that period, most of which you have served at the helm of the company, what thoughts occupy your mind?

It’s a strange feeling. March 25, 2004 looks like yesterday, but here we are. The life of running a newspaper with its ups and downs has been such a rollercoaster that I have hardly had time over the last 10 years to sit back and take it all in.

But 10 years is such a milestone that I can’t help reflecting on the past now. The thoughts that occupy my mind rotate around our endurance amidst the brutal industry that is newspaper publishing.

Within 18 months of the formation of The Observer Media Ltd, the company lost its founding managing editor, John Ogen Kevin Aliro. What challenges did you face as a result and what kept the company going despite such a huge loss?

Kevin was our leader he was not only older than most of us but also more experienced, more exposed and obviously more endowed financially. It was hard enough with him but without him it became doubly hard.

Nevertheless, with a g belief in our abilities, hard work and discipline, we managed to persevere. We were in fact fired up by his demise, as we owed it to him to succeed and to prove the doubters wrong.

In the maiden issue of The Weekly Observer, the company made a number of promises to its readers. What do you consider to be some of the most significant milestones for The Observer that you can use to say the paper kept the promise?

One of our commitments was to remain neutral in a perceived polarized media landscape. Up to now we get bashed by both sides of the political divide some government supporters say we are pro-opposition while some opposition supporters say we are pro-government. We like it that way.

We also promised to be a newspaper that delivers depth and analysis with a professional touch, and we have endeavoured to pursue that ideal. When we have failed, it has not been for lack of will or trying but, rather, inevitable human weaknesses that are prevalent in our relatively young and struggling media industry.

For most of The Observer readers, the only interaction that they have had with The Observer over the last 10 years is the copy that reaches their desks.

As the managing director, how can you help them appreciate the operation that the company runs and the challenges that have come with ensuring that readers get their copy of the paper regularly without fail?

Getting the articles written, subbed and laid onto pages is very complex in itself, but it is not the hardest part in our experience. The paper must after that be distributed to all corners of the country and that is a much more complex, tedious and expensive operation.

What makes it even harder is the fact that it’s virtually out of our hands, as newspaper agents and vendors are not our employees and yet their performance affects us tremendously.

Uganda’s media industry has its fair share of problems. What do you think poses the greatest danger to traditional journalism as people know it in Uganda?

The dangers are really intertwined but the greatest of them all is that Ugandan newspapers are not making enough money to invest in quality journalism as they should. Because the newspapers are not expanding their circulation fast enough, even with the expanding economy and population, they are not able to invest a great deal in good journalism.

As a result, most media houses are unable to keep their best staff, leaving newsrooms teeming with mediocrity. In the absence of compelling journalism, the media houses find it even harder to expand their readerships. Moreover, overheads related to printing, staffing and distribution make it a very expensive business undertaking, squeezing profit margins, more so as aertising revenue shrinks in light of competition from radio, TV and social media.

In the absence of robust circulation growth, newspapers look to aertising for the bulk of their revenue, putting themselves at the mercy of the key aertisers – government institutions and corporate business – whose interests can at times be at odds with ethical journalism. This rather miserable outlook calls for innovation and exploration of new revenue models such as online aertising and not-for-profit journalism. What would you want to see journalists, media managers, friends of the media and the general public do in order to help the media continue to play a useful role in our society?

People need to understand that journalism is not meant to benefit journalists but rather members of the public. If there is consensus on the importance of free media in the expansion of democratic space, freedoms and accountability, then people must be ready to defend press freedom and even pay [through taxes] to sustain quality journalism. Can such a public good be guaranteed by private media that are at the mercy of unforgiving market forces? No.

Good journalism ought to be insulated from the vagaries of private business. This can be done through the intervention of donor groups, foundations or government, in a carefully regulated way. This is common in western countries where the role of the free press is not lost on taxpayers, more so in Scandinavia.

BBC is funded by the British taxpayer although it’s not run by the government. Otherwise, left to their own devices, private media houses will be tempted to dumb down journalism, hire cheaper journalists, sensationalise headlines, pander to the whims of aertising giants, so as to stay in business. As for journalists, media owners and managers, the challenge is how not to betray the trust of the reading public.

The Observer begins yet another phase of its journey today. What can the readers expect? Where does The Observer go from here?

First of all, I must thank our dedicated readers who have stood by us for 10 years without them, we are nothing. I must thank our aertisers as well because no privately-owned newspaper in Uganda can survive without aertising, however good its content might be. Our staff, distribution agents and vendors, and the public, have all played their part in making The Observer what it is.

The goodwill that saw us through 10 years is still with us and we can’t afford to let you down. We’re finalising a content and design review exercise, which when unleashed in the coming weeks will deliver more value for money. At a strategic level, now that The Observer has consolidated its position in the Ugandan market, we will focus on growth and expansion over the coming years.

Source : The Observer

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