x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

In Kenya, newspapers still trump the internet

Kenyan print media is seeing an expansion at a time when its rivals in the West are cutting back to survive.

A Kenyan reaches for a local newspaper, while another reads a popular local title at a newsstand in Nairobi.
A Kenyan reaches for a local newspaper, while another reads a popular local title at a newsstand in Nairobi.

NAIROBI // Kenya's largest newspaper, The Daily Nation, is normally brimming with advertisements for mobile phones, banks or computer companies. But one in-house ad in last week's paper was particularly noteworthy for followers of media trends. In a full-page ad, The Nation said it had vacancies for eight newly created positions, including jobs for editors and reporters. The paper is expanding its newsgathering operation at a time when most western newspapers are slashing jobs or going under.

While the current financial climate and new technology has meant bad news for papers in North America and Europe, newspapers are thriving in Africa. In Kenya, rising literacy rates and lagging penetration of technology has kept the printed paper king of all media. Last year, newspaper circulation in Africa increased by nearly seven per cent, the highest rate of any continent, according to the World Association of Newspapers, a trade organisation. In North America, circulation dropped by nearly four per cent, with Europe seeing a two per cent decrease.

"The simple fact is that, as a global industry, our printed audience continues to grow," Gavin O'Reilly, the president of the World Association of Newspapers, said in a statement. "But you might say that this growth is taking place in the developing markets of the world and masks a continued downward trend in the developed markets." Western newspapers have been in decline for almost a decade, thanks in large part to the internet, where readers can find free content. Advertisers have not followed readers on to the Net like newspaper publishers had hoped. In the first quarter of this year, ad revenue at American newspapers dropped US$2.6 billion (Dh9.5bn), according to the Newspaper Association of America.

The internet still has not penetrated parts of some developing countries, especially rural Africa. Here, newspapers are still the main way people stay connected to events in the far off capital. And, as literacy rates increase - in Kenya it is at 85 per cent and climbing - the audience for newspapers continues to grow. "A newspaper is still prestigious, especially with semi-literate people," said Kamau Mubuu, a professor of communications at the University of Nairobi. "In a village, when you are seen with a newspaper, you are seen as educated."

Most street corners in Nairobi, Kenya's capital, have at least one newsstand peddling an array of local papers in English and Swahili. Newspaper boys in red and blue coats walk up and down lines of traffic hawking The Nation and The Standard, Kenya's two largest papers, to idle motorists. Kenyans say they trust the major local newspapers for unbiased news. The country is considered to have one of the freest presses in Africa, although self-censorship is still an issue and the government retains the power to raid media houses. The newspapers in Kenya occasionally probe the government and ask tough questions. A recent front page story in The Nation about a government delegation to a United Nations meeting in Geneva revealed that the three-day trip cost taxpayers US$70,000. That is the kind of pocketbook watchdogging that has recently won praise at The Daily Telegraph in London.

Business is booming at The Nation, where circulation has risen steadily in the past five years to a peak of 160,000, although that number could be much higher considering each copy is read by as many as 10 people. The company employs 300 journalists at its bustling newsroom in a downtown Nairobi high rise. David Aduda, the administrative editor for The Nation, said the fact that the company is hiring new journalists was a sign of its strength.

"At this time of massive job layoffs in the media, The Nation is employing. That sends a positive message." But newspapers in Kenya are not immune to the scourge of new technology that has doomed western papers. Though that trend has been late to arrive in the developing world, newspaper publishers here are bracing themselves for the onslaught of new media. A Kenyan initiative to wire the country for high-speed internet and bring web access to rural areas could cut into newspapers' markets.

"Give it five years or so," Mr Aduda said. "Ultimately it's just a matter of time before we embrace new media." The Nation already has a strong presence on the internet. But it is the printed paper that still carries the brand's identity. On a recent sunny afternoon, Peter Murithi sat on a bench in a leafy downtown Nairobi park filling in a crossword puzzle in The Nation. The 56-year-old agricultural consultant does not have internet access at home and he rarely reads the news online in cyber cafes. Mr Murithi said he would be in the dark without his daily newspaper.

"The paper is where I go to get the news. Newspapers are like food. I have to have one every day." mbrown@thenational.ae