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KISERO: Pulling out government ads is killing private media; rescind it

Wednesday June 03 2020
Newspapers

Society has an obligation to support media companies because these public watchdogs do more than just making money for shareholders. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By JAINDI KISERO

I looked at the size and pagination of newspapers on Madaraka Day on Monday and found myself feeling nostalgic about the lucrative and ad-rich supplements that used to be published on this day. 

Government departments and parastatals would fall over themselves to place colour ads in newspapers on this day. When officials restricted advertising in the local media many months ago, they did not appreciate the effect of the policy on media businesses.

In an economy where the number of profitable companies has been progressively shrinking, where even the profitable companies are inclined to suspend capex and where corporations have become so risk-averse as to fund even little expansion projects with bank loans instead of digging into their reserves, it was foolhardy for the government to withdraw advertising. 

Indeed, the biggest advertising spenders in this economy are the government and parastatal sector. By withdrawing such spending from local media, you undermine private investment and disrupt the operations of one of the few remaining sources of decent jobs.

I don’t hold brief for media companies. But I suggest that, as part of the inevitable post-coronavirus economic recovery planning, the government must immediately rescind the ad restrictions.

This pandemic should shock the government from its slumber and cause decision-makers to rethink that whole contraption called ‘My Gov’ pullout that appears in the newspapers occasionally.

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Placed in newspapers arbitrarily on a rotational basis, without considering the reach or circulation of the specific newspaper, it should be immediately audited and interrogated for its value for taxpayer money before being thrown into the dustbin.

Look at the performance of media companies today and the trend you will see across the board is that of failing financials and arbitrarily implemented pay cuts and lay-offs. Hundreds of journalism jobs have evaporated.

Newsrooms have been hollowed out, pages slashed. Yet I don’t hear much discussion within the government on what ought to be done to redress the widespread distress among media companies.

The curfews, stay-at-home orders and ban on public gatherings have dealt a major blow on the sales and circulation of newspapers. Things have been made worse for media businesses because the news business model here has, all these years, been built around advertising.

The advertising businesses, which have been generating and filling pages with ads, hence sustaining media companies — car dealerships, the property market, hotels and restaurant business and wholesale and retail enterprises — have been swept away by the shutdown.

Admittedly, news media organisations are private companies, which should not be bailed out with taxpayer money. Yet society has an obligation to support media companies because these public watchdogs do more than just making money for shareholders.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have all seen how reporters have been risking their lives to give the public accurate facts on the coronavirus, even as they continued to hold public officials to account over the decisions they make.

The systemic role performed by the media is why a group of US congressmen have proposed a coronavirus stimulus plan for news companies.

The government should consider rolling out a big budget to fund a massive public health advertising campaign to support news businesses during this crisis.

The ‘Madaraka Week’ is an appropriate conjuncture to comment on the state of politics on the land and as we approach 2021. 

It seems that splintering of political parties, especially when a long-serving President is about to step aside, having reached the constitutional term limit, has become a permanent feature of our politics. The stage is set for hurriedly crafted and shifting ethnic coalitions that must happen as we approach elections. The oligarchs of ethnic politics have perfected the art of manipulating their tribal followers — blindingly herding them in and out of political parties and coalitions at their whim and fancy.

The tragedy is, we watch as they bungle the economy. 

The reason economic issues are abandoned quickly is that politics and elections always put power in the hands of another tenuous edifice always on the verge of falling apart and constantly rocked by differences and grievances over which ethnic coalition or leader has been given ‘half a loaf’, or betrayed.

The transition from this political culture to a system that emphasises broad policy issues — corruption, unemployment, inequality, broken public health systems and how to restore the engine of production — is yet to start.

Without deep constitutional reforms, it will take ages to migrate this country’s politics away from the logic of ‘it’s our turn to eat’.

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