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The East African : Nov 10th 2014
VI | OF UNDERSTANDING THE REGION | Q&A WITH JOSEPH ODINDO | We started o≠ with an idea and ended up with a paper selling 30,000 copies What was the idea behind The EastAfrican? Is the paper still relevant What needs to be done differently especially with changes in media technology? The founding editor of The EastAfrican spoke to TREVOR ANALO about these and other issues. Putting together this newspaper that has grown to be the region’s most respected weekly? Tell us about those early days. Twenty years can pass so fast…It feels like yesterday when we were laying the ground for this paper. How was the preparation? I think it’s probably the one project the Nation Media Group has given the greatest attention, in terms of research and product development. Subsequently, I got involved in other launches, but I was always struck by the lengths to which the company went to ensure we got it right (with The EastAfrican). This could have been because the Nation had not launched any new product since it introduced the Daily Nation, Sunday Nation and Taifa Leo — in more than 30 years. But at any rate, the preparations were extensive. There was a lot of preliminary work in trying to understand the market. The inspiration was the expectation that the East African Community would be revived and the thinking was that with a new regional market there would be an opportunity for a cross-border media, starting with a newspaper. I think that was very far-sighted of the Nation’s management because that is what has happened now. Did the newspaper turn out to be what you and the others originally envisioned? There was a feeling that the idea that was in the minds of the planners and what we eventually ended up with were significantly different. This was as a result of the research we had done; talking to the market and trying to understand what it was exactly needed. We had to do a road trip across the region just to understand the countries in which we would be operating. Well, I came to the project with the expectation that we would be launching a Daily Nation for the East African market; a current affairs newspaper but for the region. That’s just us journalists; left on our own we do the thing we are most familiar with. Gerry Loughran (then a consultant with the Nation) too was thinking of another Daily Nation. In fact, when we were trying to choose a name for it, one of the proposed names was “The EastAfrican Nation.” But as a result of the market research, talking to potential readers — permanent secretaries, political leaders, captains of industry, university lecturers — we realised that, one, the gap lay in a business- oriented publication; two, it was not a mass readership newspaper; three, it had to offer something that the existing newspapers did not carry and that is intelligent information covering areas that were neglected, offering analysis and perspective. This helped us define more clearly the readership potential that was out there. Did these plans leak out? Your competitors did try to beat you to the punch by launching The East African Chronicle. Yes that’s interesting. I had actually forgotten about The East African Chronicle. The challenge of doing a new business project is guarding information. First, the plans leaked because the project took long and at some stage bits and pieces of it became public. Second, it leaked because we were not the only ones thinking of a media opportunity in the revival of the regional market. One such person was Mutahi Kagwe — then the advertising director for the Standard Group — who got wind of the Nation’s project and from what we hear laid his hands on the business plans and the minutes of the project meetings. He developed a rival product called The East African Chronicle with the help of a US organisation that brought him talent in terms of retired journalists. How did the management react to this unexpected competitor? Kagwe moved and launched before the Nation, causing quite a bit of panic because at one stage there was discussion as to whether we should change our plans or the nature of the project, taking into account that here was a competitor and we needed to do things differently. However, common sense prevailed and it was decided that so much work had been done, that we were sure of what we were doing and it would be foolish to change course because of a competitor. I think there was also the conviction that he was not a threat and the more intelligence we got about what he was doing the more confident we were that he could not match what we were planning to do. Was lack of proper market research before launching Mutahi’s own undoing? The paper was like an afterthought. Mutahi NOVEMBER 8-14, 2014 Kagwe was in a rush. Being a marketing person, he saw the business potential and got excited. But not being a journalist, he failed to see the scale of work required to do it properly. So one of the things that became clear after he launched was that he did not have the journalists and the content did not give him the results he wanted. Second, he was right to assume that it should essentially be a business publication, but he could not cover regional business , required resources he could not marshall. It took us so long to recruit staff and quite a bit of time retraining them, yet while simply moved and launched. We always waited to see whom he would get to cover Uganda and Tanzania for him. Is there a right balance between the initial vision of a regional business paper and what we have now in terms of content? I don’t think the difference is significant. There are certain core features of a paper like The EastAfrican, and the things that define its character have been retained. One, it was looking for a community across the three countries — readers who had the same characteristics: Of a particular level of education, had certain interests were in business, in politics, academia. We were looking for someone who, after reading the week’s newspaper, wanted analysis or more detailed reporting. This was the reader we defined 20 years ago, and this reader still exists. But what has changed is that the interests of this reader have been modified by changes in media technology. With the Internet, people have access to a lot of information so you cannot treat a story at the end of the week the same way that you did. We broke stories in those days what perhaps is required now is offering perspective and more detailed reporting. What is the place of The EastAfrican in the new trends in media technology? We must adjust wto the times. I think the changes in the media market make it more urgent for the paper to look again at its content. Look at the market that consumes these articles and ask yourself what they need at the end of the week that they haven’t got from other sources. The paper cannot compete in the speed of breaking stories, but it can invest in exclusive information. The paper must generate content that is unavailable elsewhere. The business of The EastAfrican is offering a different perspective, a discussion that can only happen in The EastAfrican. How did you navigate the fluid political terrain in the region and how much did this influence the direction the paper took? One of the things that helped shape the way we did our work was being clear on what role we were expected to perform in each country, depending on their needs. What we grappled with each week was: Would the function we performed in Kenya be replicated in Uganda and Tanzania and would that work? Or, because of the different conditions in the media market, slightly different needs of the readers, the different levels of economic development and different political environments—would Our labour of love: Story of the birth of a ‘handsome’ paper TURN FROM PAGE V Kampala; two brilliant column- ists were hired — for Kenya, John Githongo, destined for celebrity as the country’s anti-corruption warrior, and in Kampala, Charles Onyango-Obbo, whose breezy, demotic style was a revelation; cover prices were set and so were advertising rates. The pre-launch production nights were hard for a minimal staff. As the hours dragged into dawn, headlines were rewritten, copy was scanned with a toothcomb and photos were shot and reshot to meet Odindo’s exacting requirements. By the time of the launch issue, all hands were routinely meeting standards of precision, accuracy and aesthetics hitherto unknown at Nation Centre. Issue 0001, calm, reflective, handsome and authoritative, was a revelation to readers used to busy-busy pages and shouty headlines. For all its pluses, the new prod- uct found that establishing its niche in the market was not easy and its reputation and approval ratings far exceeded its circulation. But 18 months after its launch, the International Press Institute, assessing the state of the world media, said, “One of the best, if not the best of regional newspapers in subSaharan Africa, is The EastAfrican, providing readers with sober, incisive news of issues and events. Such a newspaper is far ahead of the political leadership of the region. The EastAfrican is proof that commerce, travel, the environment and culture tie the region together logically.” I cannot comment on the The EastAfrican’s subsequent history because I moved on to other projects, but there is no doubt the pioneers provided the paper with the soundest of sound foundations.
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