Despite its standing reputation as the richest media house in East and Central Africa, and for most of the last decade as a fair employer, recent developments at the Nation Media Group have inspired a mixture of anxiety and uncertainty. The postponement of the Nation Africa Media project, the successive retrenchments, closure of some titles and a reduction in the pagination of others has triggered speculation that despite posting impressive annual results, NMG could be going though its leanest times ever.
These trials are also being interpreted as the pangs of an entirely new management phase, what with the appointment of new chief executive Linus Gitahi slightly over two years ago and new editorial director Joseph Odindo three months ago.
In a move that surprised many, but which was typical, at the end of September NMG fired five established journalists from its Kenyan operation, NTV. It also immediately announced to staff that another eleven, most likely from the print section, would leave the company in October.
Those fired from NTV were Abdi Osman, Basset Buyuka, Jackline Mogere, Patrick Amimo and…..
NTV is rated fourth among Nairobi stations behind KTN, Citizen, and KBC and has been juggling staff – retrenching, hiring and transferring – in a desperate bid to jump the queue. What stung the management most was Steadman Group’s rating early this year in which NTV was shown to be trailing all its competitors, including the industry whipping boys, Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. The group has exerted pressure on the broadcasting division and is the main cause of the high level departures, including that of former managing director, Conrad Nkutu early this year.
Jackline Mogere was among a team of news casters the station unveiled less than a year ago amid much pomp and fanfare. This was just one of the management’s highly publicized strategies to give the TV station a new lease of life, clutching on the young and trendy presenters in a bid to shore up the face of the station and its rating. A few months ago, the station rebranded its identity, and soon after poached experienced TV journalist Linus Kaikai from KTN and made him managing editor. While the station has improved in some ways, it has not escaped from the pit; with the hummer falling on some of the presenters and reporters, it is evident that the strategy did not yield dividends, particularly the long run of the mill – some would say boring – morning talk shows.
The concern has been that, while NTV appears to be gobbling cash, it has stubbornly stuck behind literally all its industry rivals and thus the need to re-look at the costs, especially for a company that took a fair beating from the global economic downturn that is just easing off. Yet mere indications that this latest round of retrenchment might target the print more than broadcasting division is an issue that seems to suggest something more than just the travails of NTV.
With the news desk on the Daily Nation already strained, it is unlikely that the management would be looking to ease off anyone there. Inside sources indicate that the management is keen on first seeing off some of the senior editors who have since been shuffled and appear to be hanging loosely without defined responsibilities, yet are taking home hefty pay. But it is this new focus on staff at the print section that suggests that, aside from the woes of NTV, the exercise could either be due to unstated financial strains that are necessitating costs cutting measures; or just a review of staff portfolio by the new team of management; or even a warning that job security is no longer assured at the group.
Concerns among staff who talked to ET that NMG could well be undergoing difficult financial times arise out of the fact that, just this year alone, the group has twice retrenched heavily, wound up one title, The Daily Metro, reduced the pagination of the Swahili title, Taifa Leo, and raised the subject of the fate of Business Daily in several key management meetings. Like The EastAfrican, Business Daily is registering very low sales. But unlike The EastAfrican, Business Daily has failed to attract advertisement in any serious way contrary to earlier projections, on some days going without even a single advertisement. There is also the small matter of the inserts from the New York Times, which the group dropped in September because they had proved expensive and failed to improve the readership.
The possibility of a financial crunch at the company aside, there has been anxiety since the new editorial director, Odindo, took over. Speculation abounds of a major reshuffle as he asserts himself in the new role. The recent sackings do not necessarily fall in this category and the much-anticipated changes have taken unusually long to come, and if and when they do, it might not be part of the new ED’s stamp of authority, but part of the financial measures being undertaken by the company.
Yet that still would not allay concerns that, since Linus Gitahi took over, what was for once beginning to look like job security at NMG is slowly being eroded and journalists are beginning to sit on the edge like was the case ten years ago in the company, or at the rival Standard Group or Radio Africa Group. The matter of previous sackings this year are already subject of a legal battle between NMG and the Kenya Union of Journalists (see separate story in this issue ). It seems that to keep the bottomline looking positive, the company is increasingly resorting to cost cutting, including retrenchment.
But whether it’s a case of declining job security at the group or sheer repositioning by the new management, it is not lost on observers that the group has postponed the much anticipated launch of the Nation Africa Media project, initially scheduled for September ahead of the final board approval in December. The recruitment of key staff had for all intents and purposes been completed and the delay, which has been attributed to financial considerations lends credence to the argument that the retrenchment signals financial difficulties at NMG.
Charles Onyango-Obbo, the man in charge of the Nation Africa Media Division, declined a substantive interview with ET, explaining that the plans were still too raw to talk about. He indicated that the management was consulting broadly before launching the Africa project, an up market Africa-wide magazine in the league of The Times and The Economist.
It will be a great leap for the Nation Group whose motto is to be the media of choice reporting Africa for Africa.
In the latest reorganization that saw Odindo take over as editorial director end of July, Onyango-Obbo assumed a definitely more significant role as the champion of the group’s expansion into the rest of the continent. Even though he has not been directly named the Group Managing Editor in place of Odindo, the fact that he has since moved into Odindo’s former office symbolizes that he is effectively now the number two in the editorial hierarchy at the NMG.
It would however appear that the management is just trying to be careful with any new projects, especially given the experience of the Daily Metro that had to fold after it failed commercially. “A lot is likely to change depending on how our business plan eventually looks like, and if the assumptions we had made about the African media market hold. Right now the situation keeps changing by the week as we learn more and get better knowledge of the Pan-African media scene and the intricacies of the various markets,” said Obbo, politely turning down our request for interview.
It will however not be an easy ride for NMG. South Africa’s Guardian newspapers tried to cross borders into several African countries, including Kenya, but had to retreat when it became apparent that the returns were not worth the trouble. But NMG’s new baby, tentatively called the African Review, will have to content with other more established magazines on the continent like the rather rightist and anti-imperialist New African.
The New African, wearing the Pan Africanist gab, has earned itself considerable support and hostility around the continent due to its rather dogmatic approach to African politics. It, for instance, defended Robert Mugabe’s controversial land acquisition policies in what looked like a sheer attempt to slight other Western powers, including the UK, which opposed it. The other publications that have circulated on the continent, such as The Economist and The Times, are perceived to be not only foreign owned but also out of touch with reality in Africa, yet in reality they are the ones that can be said to have made a significant break in the African market.
The New African, African Business and New African Woman on the other hand have struggled to break into the market and gain acceptability, which is why it must be daring, almost foolhardy, for NMG to take such a sudden stab at the market. Analysts however agree that this would be a positive move not just for the media industry on the continent but also for balance in information flow, but are also quick to point out that its success will depend on how well NMG sets up offices for collecting news in the whole of Africa and effectively publishing it. Most media houses in Africa have lacked the resources and infrastructure for that kind of establishment and thus abandoning it to the more powerful and liquid western media establishments, which have been accused of bias due to their single-minded approach to issues.
But given its track record, it is unlikely that the NMG product would take the New African route. NMG has been able, for example, to publish an up market regional paper, The EastAfrican that has retained its credibility and financial bases even when its circulation has dipped and risen mainly because of the healthy advertising base, as opposed to its circulation. Its sales figures have averaged about 20,000 due to what research has shown as the readers’ perception of it as too serious in nature.
It is possible that the NMG management, while designing the African Review, has learnt its lessons from the performance of The EastAfrican and the collapse of the Daily Metro earlier this year. The group might have learnt one or two lessons from the hurried introduction of the Business Daily and the Daily Metro. Besides the plans for the African Review project now in top gear, the group last month unleashed another TV channel, eAfrica, which specializes in mainly entertainment. Analysts believe the strategy is to counter Radio Africa, which introduced the all-music Kiss TV and Classic TV, which specializes in African movies.
The sacking of the journalists is part of desperate measures that include a new menu of local productions that are aimed at overturning the tables on its competitors – mainly the Citizen TV that has curved a niche for local/African content. During the re-launch of NTV in July, NMG’s digital division managing director Ian Fernandes, who has also been doubling as the broadcasting chief since Conrad Nkutu’s departure, said they regarded KTN as the biggest competitor and not Citizen, which is targeting a mass audience.
While the company is far from shaky financially, there are telling signs that some of its products are evidently in trouble.