columnBy Mark Kirumira & Jan Ajwang
Among all the newspapers, it's only the two main dailies - Daily Monitor and New Vision that have managed to remain in the black as evidenced by Uganda Revenue Authority's (URA) top taxpayers' lists for the years 2005 and 2006
Today, as the rest of the world marks the World Press Freedom day, the newspaper industry in Uganda has little reason to mark the day with glee. The growth of newspapers and magazines of Uganda has not matched that of other forms of mass media like the broadcast sector. Besides, their death toll (over 100) has been amazing. Today, it's only Daily Monitor, East African, New Vision and Weekly Observer that are the major players in the industry.
Premises of the two main dailies in Uganda
Monitor Publications Limited
New Vision Publishing Corporation
Prior to Independence, the use of newspapers as a means of transmitting information was limited. Between 1900 and 1912, about five papers were fully operational - Agafa e Mengo, which was owned by the Buganda monarchy, Ebifa Mu Uganda, Munno (1911) and Uganda Herald (1912) and Matalisi.
Uganda Argus that was mainly a colonial government publication was arguably the biggest newspaper in the late 1950s until its eventual collapse in the 1970s. It has since changed names from The Voice of Uganda, Uganda Times to currently The New Vision. The Uganda Argus and those that followed in its stead, always presented as the 'official' newspaper of a specific regime.
Since 1962, most of the newspapers in Uganda have been privately owned as Richard Mutumba, a veteran journalist, elaborates. "Between 1962 and 1986, governments of the time paid no attention to newspapers because they underestimated the power they had. Most of the political leaders often used the broadcast media like radio and television to relay whatever information/ propaganda to the masses," he adds.
The biggest events the industry has witnessed over the last ten years are the acquisition of a majority stake by Kenya's Nation Media Group in Monitor Publications Limited in 1999 and the listing of the New Vision on Uganda Securities Exchange (USE) in 2004.
Whether a newspaper makes profit or not is usually dependant on the number of adverts it runs in a given period of time, but not so much on the circulated news copies.
"You can sell a good newspaper, but if you don't have a good source of advertising it is difficult. It is a big task to promote good journalism on a weak business base," says Mr Onapito Ekomoloit, another veteran journalist who once ran a weekly The Crusader that also closed down.
Ekomoloit explains that part of the challenge while running the Crusader was advertising. "We had a weak advertising base and we were operating in a different environment. Then advertising in the media was just coming up and not everyone used it," he explains.
Both the Daily Monitor and New Vision, the two main dailies, dedicate up to 40 percent of the space to advertising and the rates more often than not are uniform. A full-page advert in colour can cost as much as Shs4.5m across the board. So if any of the papers attracts eight full-page adverts in colour, then it would earn about Shs32million (Incl.VAT).
To earn that figure in circulation alone, a paper would have to sell over 30,000 copies yet going by the reading culture in Uganda that would be hard to achieve.
Among all the newspapers, it's only the two main dailies that have managed to remain in the black as evidenced by Uganda Revenue Authority's (URA) top taxpayers' lists for 2005 and 2006.
In 2005, The New Vision Publishing Corporation Limited (NVL) paid Shs6.4b in taxes and Monitor Publications Limited Shs2.8b earning themselves the 39 and 75th slots among the top 100 taxpayers. In 2006, NVL paid Shs7.9b (44th) and MPL Shs3.4b (82nd).
Besides the newspaper companies, the benefits of the industry, small as they may be, often spill over to the vendors and distributors all over the country. Newspaper houses have nationwide distributors who are always the first recipients of the product before it gets to the final consumer. The distributors are said to earn a commission of about Shs200 per paper sold to the vendors while the vendors get Shs100 per paper sold.
Since the days of the protectorate government, harassment and intimidation of journalists has been a major hindrance to the newspaper industry. Britain's stringent regulation of the Uganda Herald, an English newspaper that was basically a voice for Ugandans and owned by Indians, forced the owners to close on May 13, 1955 without explanation just for the safety of their lives.
Since then successive governments have instituted stringent measures on newspaper owners. Peter Muwanga, who is keen on the developments in the industry says, "Libel and sedition provisions in the Penal Code Act have always been twisted to cover up government's bad side and many of the papers have failed to operate to full capacity because their proprietors are often overwhelmed by court fines, jail terms and lack of advertisements from government departments."
For instance in 2005, President Museveni threatened to close down newspapers that continued to publish "conspiracy theories" about the death of Sudanese vice-president John Garang. Such statements halted any further probing on the subject.
So Article 41(1) of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda which states, "Every citizen has a right of access to information in the possession of the State or any other organ or agency of the State except where the release of the information is likely to prejudice the security or sovereignty of the State or interfere with the right to privacy of any other person" has made investigative journalism very difficult amidst the task to provide stories that would increase the readership of a paper.
Advertising vs editorial clash
Though the business side of the story has been perfectly understood by the advertising departments in the media houses, clashes between an advertising executive and the journalist, or editor have been a constant fixture. Advertising executives many times connive with editors to 'kill' stories of passionate reporters to humour advertisers.
According to Dr Peter Mwesige, a veteran journalist and now head of the Mass communication department at Makerere University, the 'clients' are part of the problem of the newspaper business.
"The pressure of big businesses is overly impressed on the media house and this affects the quality of the editorial content. I think advertisers get away with it too much, with their small promotion or events or acts of corporate social responsibility being treated as big stories,' he says.
According to him, this pressure from the business community is as bad as the pressure and interference from politicians in the operations of a media house. Yet one advertising account manager laments 'reporters write bad stories about our clients and when this happens the clients often terminate contracts and refuse to do business with us again," she says.
According to her, it then becomes a waste of effort on their part and has financial implications to the company as a whole. "We need to work together, but reporters must realise that it is the adverts that contribute the biggest part to their salaries, so they must have some regard for our clients," she adds.
Running a newspaper, more so a daily, requires massive financial commitment to maintain both the physical and human resources yet this is hard to come by. "The costs of running a paper are higher compared to the purchasing power of the people in the market," Dr Mwesige says. He explains that most of the materials like the printing paper have to be imported besides other major expenses involved.
Many newspaper houses lack an independent printing press that is a prerequisite if a newspaper has to grow. In Uganda, it's only Daily Monitor, New Vision and Red Pepper that own printing presses and this could explain their survival. Ideally, a state-of-the-art printing press that would minimise on wastage and print readable material with crisp colour adverts would cost over $40,000 (Ushs80million) yet a few newspaper proprietors can afford that.
Human resource challenges
"News rooms are still dominated by young, unskilled and inexperienced journalists who are not well placed to drive public debate through public reporting," Dr. Mwesige says. He also notes that journalists are poorly paid or facilitated.
"How do we expect quality reporting when most of the journalists are freelancers whose pay depends on the number of stories they write, this means that the quality will often be compromised," he adds. On average 'small' newspapers pay as low as Shs2,000 per article that runs.
Besides, Mwesige argues that newspapers should invest in training journalists and doing special projects. "Newspapers must continue investing in the newsroom by training these journalists," he says. According to him the question of press freedom and abuse of the rights of the media must be debated equally by the civil society, to not only strengthen the media but to prevent oppression of the press.
If the current trends are anything to go by, the newspaper industry in Uganda is yet to achieve its full potential.
Some of the collapsed newspapers
The Sun - an English version of Bukedde, a Luganda paper of New Vision
Crusader - started up by breakaway journalists from Monitor in 1996.
The Weekly Digest - started by Dr Mashate Ndugu now in the U.K
Equator - owned by Bagenda Mpiima
East African Procurement News- It has since changed to a magazine
Njuba Times - Was funded by the Buganda government
Ngoma - was a Luganda papers started by Monitor
Uganda Confidential- owned by Ssezi Teddy Cheeye
Evening Mail - an evening paper formed by breakaway journalists of Monitor in 2004
Ebifa Mu Uganda - 1907
Muno (The Friend) - a weekly publication founded in 1911
The Uganda Herald - 1912
Matalisi (The Messenger) - 1923
Gambuze (What is the News)- 1927
Dobozi Lya Buganda (Voice of Uganda) - 1927
Mugobasonqa (Followers of Reason) - 1948
Ndimugezi (The Wise Seek Advice) - 1951
Amut (News) - 1953,
Mwebingwa - 1953,
Uganda Empya (News Uganda) -1953
Saben's Commercial Digest - 1954
Uganda Mail - 1954
Uganda Post - 1954
Uganda Argus - 1955
Uganda Eyogera (Uganda Speaks)
The Weekly Topic - founded in 1986
Taifa Uganda Empya - a daily newspaper in Luganda founded in 1953
The Star - a daily newspaper founded in 1980
Ngabo - a daily newspaper in Luganda founded in 1979
The Citizens - a daily newspaper published by the Democratic Party,
Munnansi - a weekly newspaper in Luganda founded in 1980.
Focus - a weekly newspaper founded in 1983.
Independent Observer - a bi-weekly newspaper founded in 1988.
Mulengera - a weekly newspaper in Luganda
The Financial Times - a daily business paper
The Economy - a weekly business paper
Newspapers currently on the streets
The Daily Monitor
The New Vision
The Red Pepper
East African Business Week
The East African
Compiled by Mark Kirumira