By Idriss Ali Nassah
It has been nice and quiet of late without the talking head of Hetherwick Ntaba. Of course, the former presidential spin doctor made it no secret that he wasn’t a huge fan of mine but I put that down to simple envy. It must have been very difficult for him to watch a younger man write a weekly column and be taken far more seriously than an older man with daily, ad-nauseam, appearances on national radio and television ever was.
Who was that again who said politicians reign for four years and journalism governs forever? I’m not too sure where Hetherwick is now or what he has been up to these past three months but nobody really cares. Without the publicity machine of the state, which he shamelessly abused, he is now just another former-medical-doctor-turned-politician-turned-spin-doctor-now-turned-nobody.
How things have changed. How the mighty are being humbled. How life is tough.
I do not know if you have noticed, but the pro-DPP weekly newspaper, SkyNews, which arrived on the market as a loud broadsheet has not been appearing as scheduled since the death of president Bingu wa Mutharika. Apparently key editorial staff has resigned and those left are demoralized and are only hanging on hoping that things would maybe come right.
The paper was a two-trick pony; its two-pronged approach was to vilify Joyce Banda and Atupele Muluzi, seen as the main challengers to then anointed successor, Peter Mutharika.
But fate intervened and now SkyNews’ appearance on the market is erratic and it has even reduced its size from brazen broadsheet to tiny tabloid. Duwa Mutharika, the former president’s daughter also tried her hand at newspaper publishing with The Guardian, but with disastrous consequences.
I think the whole reason for the cock-up at The Guardian and SkyNews can be easily explained. Running a newspaper is no child’s play. It’s a huge task, and no sooner is one day over than you are working on the next day’s edition, desperately trying to find a major news story (or, in the case of many papers that have since folded up, make one up) that will scintillate the readers.
Look at the haunted faces of your newspaper editors and you will realize that their job—with the internet and radio providing stiff competition—is getting harder by the day and it calls for more than just cobbling words together.
And in an economy gone belly-up like ours, businesses constantly have to cut back on expenses to survive; meaning newsrooms have to do more on far less for an audience that is on a constant 24-hour news cycle.
If running a newspaper is no child’s play, then you have to be utterly brave to want to own one, particularly a new publication with no track record aimed at a readership with no disposable income.
I think the owners of SkyNews only realized quite how expensive it is to run a newspaper once Bingu had died and they were left with an operation to run and workers to pay but without the nepotism and patronage that the DPP had offered.
Then they had to face the never-ending costs of a start-up operation: expensively imported newsprint, computer equipment, technical people to employ, advertising people to pay, enough talented writers to fill those pages with stuff that people might actually want to read, printing and distribution costs and god knows what else.
Even if SkyNews filched all government advertising from the day it started, it still would cost the owners a fortune to run today. So with the DPP gone, government advertising dried up and the owners must have asked themselves why pour money into a hole when you can buy a minibus and ply the routes to make quick cash.
You don’t become rich by stuffing about with things that could conceivably make a loss, do you? Politicians usually only get involved with business ventures that will bring in the quick buck to fund their constant craving for bling. They sometimes don’t pay their staff and at The Guardian reporters were fired without warning and at Galaxy Radio they worked months on end without pay…that is what working for a politician’s enterprise is all about.
Granted, The Guardian is dead and buried but where to now for SkyNews? If the owners have already started developing cold feet about funding their enterprise then this paper is as good as dead, too. For it to resurrect, either a new knight needs to be found or an alternative source of funding has to be considered.
And you have to spare a thought for the staff left on that sinking ship. Since there aren’t too many jobs being generated in journalism at the moment, they will probably have no alternative but to hang in there and hope they will get paid end of this month.
From a reputational point of view, SkyNews is finished—just like The Guardian is dead—unless it can attract very high-caliber people to instill confidence in what remains of the staff and potential advertisers and convince the readers that it is a reformed entity. But that, I might add, is as unlikely as Peter Mutharika becoming second vice-president of Malawi.
But apart from the owners and workers of The Guardian and SkyNews, is anyone else suffering high blood pressure because these two publications are no longer on the streets? Probably not. Why would anyone cry over media that specializes in pouring vitriol and has an agenda so clearly one-sided it is openly antagonistic to anyone else with a different view?
In the sad tales of their demise are the lessons for all of us.
These two are gone but for lovers of newspapers it shouldn’t all be doom and gloom because you still have credible newspapers with quality content on the market. The Daily Times was first published in 1895 and—with over 100 years of experience—it is not about to let you down now.
I know some readers have been disconcerted with the print media they have migrated to the internet but I wouldn’t imagine reading a copy of The Sunday Times on a computer screen and deriving as much pleasure as I do flipping the pages and smelling the ink.
The recipe for newspaper survival in this hostile environment seems very simple. Print quality copy and you will find readers. But if you temper with that, your decline will be irreversible because no media that doesn’t take its audience too seriously can prosper.