Sometime in April this year, the management of the Observer Newspaper convened a crisis meeting to discuss the fate of the struggling newspaper. Things had turned from bad to worse.
The once mighty newspaper has in the recent past struggled to pay salaries, in most cases, employees have had to wait for second week of the next month to get the salaries.
Three options were discussed in that meeting: turning the paper into Kampala Newspaper. The paper would only be distributed in Kampala and its suburbs where paper makes 95% of her copy sales.
The second option was to turn the tri-weekly [coming out Monday, Wednesdays and Friday] into a weekly newspaper. The third option was to look out for an investor or buyer.
During the Monday morning editorial meeting, James Tumusiime the managing editor, delivered the bad news; starting mid-November, the Observer shall come out once a week, as opposed to three times a week.
Started in March 2004, The Observer had carved out a niche as a deep, analytical investigative paper, breaking top stories including How Government had spent 20 billion on Dr, Kazibwe, the former Vice president to study her PhD.
The paper became a darling for many. Sales went up to reach a high 20,000 copies. In 2013, the paper, went tri-weekly as it tried to extend its reach and influence and boost its financial position. Plans were under way to become a daily, in fact it was matter of time.
However, things started going bad, the paper was hit by internal fraud, millions were lost over a period of four years [we shall expand more], and there were also management issues.
Management who did not have prior experience in managing a newspaper also lacked cleared strategy. The money was there, but decision making was slow. For example, the company missed buying its own home in upscale and fast growing Ntinda town, simply because management was not deciding.
Along the way, the paper got several offers from loaded investors, however, lack of decision making made management miss these offers. Today, the investors are no longer interested. New Vision, Daily Monitor, Kenya‘s Standard Newspaper and South African media house were at one time interested in buying the paper at one time.
In the Monday meeting, the soft speaking Tumusiime told the editorial staff that management had decided to scale back [from tri-weekly to weekly] because it had become financially unsustainable to print three editions per week.
The copy sales had dropped to 2,500, the paper was also finding it hard to get adverts, the only adverts, they would get are from government institutions, in most cases, the paper has to ‘return’ something. For long, the paper has been published without adverts.
With no adverts, dropping copy sales, the paper has been surviving majorly on donor money. Management also opted to cost cutting. The company that used to give free lunch, employees were now required to pay 4,000, drinking water and sugar were also scrapped. So are other benefits that employees used to enjoy. To distribute the paper, management secretly depended on competition to deliver upcountry.
These events, forced the experienced staff in all departments including editorial, Sales, Circulation and distribution, Finance to look for greener pressures.
Some of the top journalists who left include: Emmanuel Mutayizibwa, Robert Madoi, Ninsima Racheal, David Lumu, Hussein Bogere, Shifa Mwesigwa, Ssemujju Nganda, Richard Kavuuma, Edward Echwalu, Patience Akumu among others.
Otherwise management did not labor to replace the departing employees with better ones. In most cases depended on what was available or to put in better, the departure of staff was seen by management was an opportunity to reduce on costs, they were wrong.
In the Monday meeting, Tumusiime however promised that the weekly paper is going to b ‘’ bigger and more engaging’’
The paper shall be coming out on Fridays. He also said the company is going to put more emphasis on its website and make it more vibrant. However, Friday is also becoming competitive, that Kampala Sun had to change to Tuesday.
The Observer was started in 2005, by a group of senior journalists, led by Late John Kevin Aliro. The journalist who broke away from The Daily Monitor.
While the newspaper industry in Uganda is facing tough times, the Observer Newspaper problems and failure are largely internal.
To be continued.