Shortly after the first edition of the Red Pepper newspaper hit the streets exactly 20years ago this month, my friend and media colleague Joachim Buwembo wrote an intriguing piece about us.
Reminiscing his working experience with yours truly first at Daily Topic in 1994 and later at the New Vision between 1998 and 2000, Buwembo opined that he knew I had the ability to churn out good journalistic stories and on that front Red Pepper would give the big sisters – New Vision and Monitor – a run for their money. But he had one big fear: would we be able to translate journalistic excellence into business? His worry was informed by the high death rate of newspapers in our banana republic. Since independence Uganda has had various publications most of which folded in their infancy.
I won’t name names here but Uganda’s literary graveyard is full of failed newspapers some of which I have been a part of. So when we started the Red Pepper project we had all that in mind. To say that the road has been bumpy is an understatement. It has been hell. Yours truly has been imprisoned several times.
In the first 100 days of the Red Pepper, I spent three days in cells at Kampala Central police station and two at Jinja road police station. Eight days at the notorious Nalufenya and 21 days in Luzira prison. The publication has been closed by the government twice; first for 11 days in 2013, then 90 days in 2017. That’s not to mention hundreds of court cases. But here we are 20 years and still counting!
Red Pepper’s singular and most important contribution to Uganda’s media ecosystem has been the popularization of the tabloid brand of journalism. When yours truly and a group of talented senior journalists quit The monitor in November 1995 to start The Crusader, one of the directors at Monitor wrote saying our project was doomed because researches had shown the Ugandan market could only sustain two newspapers: a government mouthpiece (New Vision) and an independent, opposition leaning one (Monitor). Ominously, The Crusader collapsed in 1999 just four years down the road despite having the best journalistic brains in the land at the time. (We are talking about Onapito Ekomoloit, Dr. William Lugalambi, Dismas Nkunda, Martin Mpungu, Simwogerere Kyazze, Hamis Kaheru, Sarah Mirembe Laura Mulenga, Dr. Peter Mwesige,Vukoni Lupa Lasaga and myself).
So when we conceived the Red Pepper in early 2001, I was fully aware of the problem. The newspaper market was already heavily niched – tilted towards political reportage. To succeed, one had to appeal to a different branch of the profession and the tabloid came to mind. You see, tabloids, because they write about people and not things, have a human interest appeal. Their stories, heavily slanted towards sex, shock and scandal, are a reflection of what goes on in everyone’s life. They perfectly strike chords with the classical interests we teach in Journalism School on what drives people to consume media. In the case of a newspaper, it is mainly to read about themselves first, read about others especially those they know and to catch up on the universal human weakness – the quest for good sex.
This niche was virgin on the Ugandan media scene. While Red Pepper would not be its pioneer (Chic magazine had done it earlier with its salacious cover models in swimsuit—the Kajobes of this world). But Chic was no more. So the demand was there. Thus we slowly plunged into the segment which we tinged with exclusive intelligence reporting. And, voila, the formula worked! By the 14th week, despite being launched in a political season, Red Pepper was top of the mind brand. While we went to prison for Issues14 and 15 that covered students’ beach sex orgies, those two went into reprints of tens of thousands of copies and we never looked back. In three years, Red Pepper was able to buy its printing press, albeit a used one from the Monitor at shs 250m, build its premises in Namanve, and launch itself into a daily. By 2007 we had become so big with several other publications and a new shs 5bn modern printing press. We created hundreds of jobs for the youth and have been a seedbed of sorts for most of the journalists in town.
We have also faithfully informed, educated and entertained. I know people who still read Hyena of 2005. We have taken part in social responsibility causes like fundraising for the sick, exposed many ills in society, especially immorality among the young and old by playing with the scarecrow. The tabloid brand has been taken up by the previously ‘serious’ newspapers and TV stations and blogs are full of gossip shows that have become the talk of town—all thanks to our leadership in that field.
In the area of academia, I know colleagues who have done Masters’ dissertations and PhD theses based on the Red Pepper as a case study or borrowing a leaf from its influence in the tabloidization of the media in East Africa. My colleague Johnson Musinguzi and my good friend Dr Levis Nyangaro Mugumya of Makerere University come to mind. We have also inspired a good number of online publications many of which are run by our former staff.
One key lesson I have learnt over the years is the preeminence of human capital over other forms of capital in the media industry. The demand for creativity is immense. Red Pepper’s Hyena is a limping, lowly educated resident of Bwaise. He’s a nobody. But his creativity has made him a brand. The other day we had a matter to sort with the principal judge and when we had sat in his boardroom, the first question he asked was who of you is Mr. Hyena?
When we started we hardly had anything. Well, James Mujuni and I had cars but the rest of our colleagues were fresh graduates. Mujuni lived in our one room newsroom in Makerere Kavule while I cohabited with Arinaitwe Rugyendo and Patrick Mugumya in my incomplete house in swampy Kabowa. We borrowed most of the computers and friends would come in to help the- likes of Dr Johnson Jojo Mwebaze, David Lambert Tumwesigye and William Baryevuga.
We not only brainstormed story ideas but the actual writing of the articles with everyone contributing to diction and syntax. It was literally the brainpower and not machines or money that built RP. The future of the newsroom is not in the state of the art printing presses and studios. It is in investing in journalists and enhancing their ability to imagine and create.
Yet to invest in human resources, media organizations will need more money which can only be obtained through diversification. If I have learnt anything during the pandemic it is the folly of putting all eggs in one basket. With people now focused on keeping healthy and saving all the little for the rainy day, the demand for on – sale- media products has plummeted. Going forward we need to diversify. We should now be producing sanitisers and masks and food in addition.
But ultimately the future will be in mergers. The biggest media companies in the world are conglomerates…the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, Time Warner etc. The era of small things is long gone. As nations think of integrating to create bigger markets, news organizations must quickly think of merging. Imagine if you had NBS television, Red Pepper, Observer and Galaxy FM under one roof. Think of the combined audience we would sell to advertisers. We would be able to pay our staff better and therefore retain the best in the newsroom. But that’s a story for another day. Today, I wish to salute everyone that has been there for us over the last 20 years. Thanks to all of Uganda for embracing our craziness.
As for my friend Buwembo, I don’t know what he would now say about our ability to turn journalism skills into the business. But perhaps the jury is still out.
The author has a PhD in Communication and is our Editor-in-chief- / Chief Executive Officer.