Are newspapers on their way out?

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Editor: Nic Cheeseman
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With a new series on media and democracy in the pipeline at DiA, our co-editor ponders the future of newspapers in Kenya and beyond.

The first thing a new visitor to Africa notices is the quality of airports. The second is the quality of roads. The third is the quality of hotels. Somewhere down the line comes the quality of the newspapers and the national media. When I first began to do research in Africa 10 years ago, I started in Kenya. I was impressed by the diversity of the media and the breadth of the coverage. I was also impressed that the news media seemed to matter.

Back in England, it felt like people were increasingly ignoring newspapers. They were still read avidly by sections of the middle classes, but circulation was falling. Tabloids such as The Sun were still doing very well, but only by ditching coverage of real news stories in favour of sensationalist stories about celebrities. If people wanted information, they more often than not simply looked online. The idea of reading newspapers to be better informed about the politics of the day was going out of fashion.

Things seemed to be very different in Kenya. Not only was it politicians on the front page of the main newspapers (instead of actors and musicians), but reading and discussing the news seemed to be a national pastime. As a young researcher, this was great news in more ways than one. You could have a better and more informed conversation about politics while waiting for a bus in Kenya than you could have hoped for in Britain at the time.

The circulation figures over the last ten years back up my memories. At a time when newspaper circulation was falling in western democracies, it increased in Kenya. In line with the trend in Latin America and Asia, Kenyan newspapers have achieved double-digit growth for much of the last ten years.

Three years ago, the Nation Media Group announced that in 2010 the number of copies of the Daily Nation distributed had increased by six per cent, while The East African went up five per cent and the Business Daily by 10 per cent. It is now estimated that the Daily Nation sells around 180,000 copies a day. The Standard is believed to sell around 60,000, with The Star distributing 20,000. Actual sales figures are hard to come by, but a conservative estimate is that 300,000 newspapers are purchased every day in Kenya.

Of course, because each copy is read by a number of people – and many stories are read out on community radio stations and the like – the actual reach of the print media is much larger than these numbers suggest. Estimates vary widely, but research conducted by the Afrobarometer (a survey of public opinion carried out by academic researchers) found that 10 per cent of adult Kenyans read a newspaper every day. That is equivalent to 2.4 million people, not counting the hundreds of thousands of younger readers.

The figure for the proportion of Kenyans who sometimes read papers is even more impressive: almost 50 per cent of the population read a newspaper at least once a week. If we exclude the under 14s, this translates into some 12 million people. There is, of course, a large urban-rural divide. Research by Winnie Mitullah has found that some 60 per cent of rural dwellers claim to have never received news through a newspaper, compared to just 37 per cent of urban Kenyans.

Like many first-time visitors to a new continent, I expected the rest of Africa to look something like the first country that I got to know well. As a result, I thought that the newspapers in other countries would be as well written and well read as the ones in Kenya. When I got to Zambia later that year one of the first things I did was to buy copies of all of the main Zambia papers. I had a rude awakening. One of the best-known papers, the Times of Zambia, was light and limp, about half the size of The Standard or The Nation. It felt more like an extra-large pack of tissues than a newspaper.

The content was just as disappointing. The paper would have been more appropriately titled “The Government’s Diary”. Controlled by the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the writing in the pages of the Times was so dull that it was largely ignored by ordinary Zambians. The Post provided a much more interesting and critical voice, but the same could not be said for the rest of the media.

I, subsequently, had similar experiences in Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda.

This is not to say that Kenyans should go easy on their journalists simply because they are some of the best in Africa – it may well be the case that Kenyan newspapers are better precisely because Kenyans demand so much of them. Moreover, the Kenyan media has a number of obvious limitations, so there is a lot of room for improvement.

The most obvious problem is ownership. Many newspapers and TV stations have been accused of political bias because of their ownership structures. Between them, former President Daniel arap Moi, his son Gideon, and his former aide Joshua Kulei, own some 66 per cent of The Standard. President Uhuru Kenyatta owns Kameme FM, Meru FM, Mbaitu FM and Mediamax, not to mention K24 and The People. In the past, the Nation Media Group has also been the subject of allegations of political bias in favour of one party or another.

There is little hope of the media acting as a “fourth estate” in order to check the power of political leaders when so much of it lies in the hands of political leaders – especially in the context of a government that appears to care little for freedom of speech, even though it is expressively protected under the Constitution.

The recent controversy surrounding the passage of the Kenya Information and Communication Bill 2013 was a prime example of how vulnerable – and, in some cases, illusory – the independence of the media remains.

Other problems include the way in which journalists are employed – often as stringers or on short-term contracts that fail to provide the job security that reporters need to break “real” stories. The combination of a lack of job security and the hostile attitude of the Jubilee Alliance to criticism mean there is little incentive for journalists to invest in long-term investigations. Given this scenario, it is surprising how vibrant, critically engaged, and balanced Kenyan media often is.

However, in future, the biggest challenge may not be government interference or employment practices, but the changing way in which Kenyans are receiving information. The growth of the print media appears to be slowing. Over the last 10 years, circulation figures may have held up, but the number of people saying that they read a newspaper every day has fallen from 16 per cent to 10 per cent.  A more worrying fact for the main media houses is that the proportion of people who say that they never read newspapers has increased from 36 per cent to 52 per cent.

So what is happening? Are Kenyans leaving behind newspapers to go online? Not just yet. The research conducted by Mittulah also found that 77 per cent of Kenyans had never accessed the Internet, rising to 84 per cent in rural areas, while only 6 per cent used it every day. The math is simple: if 26 per cent more Kenyans are not reading newspapers and only 6 per cent are using the Internet regularly, something else must explain the decline in the number of people picking up newspapers. The evidence available at the time of writing suggests that it is not so much the Internet but TV and the radio that are taking readers away from newspapers.

Rising incomes and the gradual expansion of the electricity network means that a growing number of Kenyans can access television. At the same time, the deregulation of FM radio and the rapid expansion of vernacular and community radio stations has given people an opportunity to access local and national news in a more interactive way than ever before. The Afrobarometer survey data provides compelling evidence of these long-term trends. Between 2003 and 2011, the number of Kenyans watching TV every day increased from 22 per cent to 33 per cent. At the same time, the proportion of people with no access to TV declined to just 40 per cent of the population.

RADIO DISCUSSIONS

Although the number of people listening to the radio every day appears to have fallen over the last eight years (77 per cent to 68 per cent), an increasing number of Kenyans are listening to – and in many cases engaging with – discussions on FM radio stations. An impressive 56 per cent of Kenyans regularly listen to such discussions, and a further 27 per cent listen occasionally. The proportion of people who actively participate in these discussions is also remarkably high. While only 3 per cent of people do it “always”, 16 per cent have engaged at some point. This may not seem that significant  remember that this equates to almost 4 million people; far more than actively engage in debate through the print media by writing letters and the like.

The data that is cited in this article is now a year or two old, but the picture has not changed much since it was collected. If anything, the trend towards the growing use of the radio, TV, and the Internet, will have accelerated in the intervening period. Does this mean that newspapers are on the way out? It may seem sacrilegious to ask this question in a column in the Sunday Nation, but, in fact, there is no better place to have this debate because it is journalists and editors that need to move with the times if the print media is to effectively respond to the challenges that it faces. If the experience of Western newspapers tells us anything, it is that if Kenyan papers are to survive in the long-term, they need to start adapting now.

The Nation Media Group worked this out already, and set about developing a better website and providing news through a broader variety of platforms. In doing so, it has gone some way to transforming the Internet from a challenge into an opportunity. All Kenyan newspapers need to do the same, if they are to maintain readership.

I, for one, will be hoping the “old media” can find a way to co-exist with the “new media” – the quality of news coverage depends on it.

This blog first appeared in the Daily Nation on 30th March 2014.

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