It is my turn, alas, to write the now familiar letter announcing my departure from the Nation Media Group, my employer of 23 years. Monday was my last day, this is the second day of early retirement.
I want to thank you for your kind support and appeal to you to extend the same to your new editors, management and company in general.
I thought I should also let you know that being your editor has been the singular honour of my life. The passions we have shared and the causes we have fought jointly have added a great sense of fulfillment to my professional life. I love you all — I believe you can’t lead people if you don’t care for them — and I admire and respect the work you do, the miracles you conjure daily. I have loved every minute of our life together and if I was to do it all over again, I’d struggle to find a thing to change.
I must say that too often I threw some of you in the deep end and sat back to endure your struggles. Maybe there is a better way of raising journalists in the newsroom. However, editors must grow strong legs to stand their ground in a tough world. They must also acquire absolute faith in their own judgement. These skills cannot be taught by having your boss do your job for you or maintaining a regular routine of sob sessions, in my opinion. One must be prepared to be tough.
I’m very proud to be associated with the work we have done as a company and as a department over the past four years and beyond. Ours is not just to earn a living, as journalists we are also on a mission to preserve our calling and to serve and improve the communities in which we live. Journalism, and by extension our lives, is in crisis. Journalists must have a clarity of mission and strength of purpose if our profession is not to be scattered to the four winds by the turbulence of technological change and upheavals of culture.
The way media are changing is far from clear; we are drawing conclusions on what is rising and what is decaying based on observations of a very small segment of the arc of journalism and human communication which is, I think, evolutionary in scale. When I was a student almost three decades Communications Technology — examining the confluence between journalism and dynamics of technology — was a compulsory course. I don’t know whether the popular assumptions of those years held. TV was on the ascendancy driven by reality shows and live coverage, radio was in crisis and print was thriving, riding on the success of the new TV stars, like one of those little birds on the back of a rhino. Nobody predicted social media; Bill Gates had written Business at the Speed of Thought but you can read it and tell me whether it is a prescient foretelling of the digital times in which we live. In 1996, FM radio was looking really uncertain, the dominant station was Atlantic 252, a long wave station out of Ireland which we used to listen to in the van enroute to doing manual jobs. Atlantic 252 died in 2002 and digital radio has just exploded — just look at the stations you have on Spotify alone — and is busy morphing into podcasting.
I have tended to err on the side of sophisticated caution in terms of our practical approach to the management of products: existing media is an important part of the mix in the short run and the medium term and that you can take to the bank. That is why each of the Nation print titles has been redesigned and refreshed in the last four years, including Taifa Leo whose turn-around is the stuff of legend, and NTV whose news is much improved over that period.
Equally bankable is the fact that this moment is digital and it is in your hands — on your mobile phone. It appears as if the entirety of the human experience has been condensed into one little device. We can’t see the future — yet — but I’m willing to wager that Elon Musk’s Neuralink chip has a lot to do with it. It is the moment that journalists must focus on and the challenge of having a functional dual personality to service existing products and at the same time build future ones.
For years, perhaps decades, the digital agenda at Nation was trapped between frustrated journalists who wanted consumers to pay for content and digital purists who believed the internet, and everything in it, should be free. This latter position actually had solid foundations, the content brought the audience, the algorithms engendered efficiencies and advertising paid for the party. The model appeared to work briefly at first, then frayed at the edges and eventually basically failed.
With encouragement from the board in March 2019, the management team got moving and together we launched the most remarkable transformation experiment on this continent. Our prototype won accolades across the world and we learnt such tremendous lessons that I believe Nation.Africa is the Rosetta Stone of digital transformation in Africa. The lessons we have collected — not least the fact that consumers were willing to pay us $300,000 for content that was so-so — will help those willing to learn to decode the secret to digital success.
Why we didn’t build the prototype into a full product, I believe, should be a case for study in journalism and business schools and requires academic inquiry and exposition. There is much to learn from our experience.
The final transformed structure that we proposed for NMG proceeded from a syllogism that, while not new, was deeply rooted in its core business: Journalism. Why would people pay for content when there is so much of it, of good quality, absolutely free on Google? Nation journalism must have an inspiring purpose, whether new or an extension of the old, whether it is influencing society, or uniting Africa or whatever it is. What it means to have content as a pillar is not just the appointment of a champion, it is the entire corporate edifice becoming obsessed with content, requiring new dimensions and investments in the management of talent and a deep focus on Editorial Policy to guarantee quality and the reputation of Nation Journalism.
Nation Journalism merits a few ‘amens’ on its own . Nation Journalism is precious; we must teach it at the universities and include it in our body of thought. Even more important, everything possible must be done to preserve it for the African posterity. It is the collection of our !earnings and experiences in journalism over the past 60 years, influenced by the thought and values of Nation founder, High Highness the Aga Khan ,who by the way, is a very impressive guy — intellectual, very sophisticated but kind and polite to a fault. The purpose of Nation Journalism is not the mindless accumulation of money. Nation people are good business people but they know that money is a by-product of a flawless execution of the mission, that is, service to society. Time and again it has been proved that our journalism is a rejection of tabloid pap and titillation or the garish mutilation of products to attract attention. That is why successful pap-based products have always died.
It is respect for women, care for the youth, it is not pro-government or pro-opposition, it is independent (how independence is maintained is a matter for some debate), it is standing
for democracy, human rights, including the rights of minorities, free markets and, last but by no means least, professionalism, which requires no expansion. The other two questions: who is willing to pay for that content and why, how, when and where they want to consume, speak to the other two pillars — customer, and technology/innovation. Customer-centricity requires an absolute commitment to understanding and serving the needs of the consumer and calls for an uncomfortable conversation between journalism values and the desires of the consumer.
It elevates relevance to the most important of news values and requires the application of data to the measurement of customer sentiment. Technology/innovation helps us to tell better stories and reach the consumer more effectively, but it is more than just a tool or “enabler”; its effective application requires a workplace revolution, an overhaul in the organization of work and a complete new mindset. That is why the newsroom workflows are now undergoing change. The proposals we made about digital transformation were not unconsidered and thanks to a lot of work by many people, NMG is completing, not embarking on, digital transformation, it is a 4X1 relay, the three are run, yours is to close the race. The thing to always remember is that there is no going back, digital is the only game in town. Embrace it, support it, evangelise it. That is the ticket to your future.
Goodbye and God Bless.
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