ARINAITWE RUGYENDO : 20 Years of Red Pepper & and the Future of Ugandan Newspapers

 

What came to be known as Red Pepper is a story that started from Room A-20 at Nkrumah Hall, Makerere University, following my final year exams in 1999.

It is a continuum that first took two of us, coinless, to venture into the Rwandan market in September 2000 to help journalist Asuman Bisiika found the defunct Rwanda Herald.  Six months later, we re-connected with our three colleagues in Mbarara City to found Red Pepper in 2001.

This story, spanning 22 years, has been a learning journey of young entrepreneurship, tenacity, the audacity of hope, tears, and, ultimately, the WILL to succeed at all costs.

As we celebrate two decades of Red Pepper this month, I look back to the year 2001, then as a 24- year old incessantly ambitious young boy, and write this tribute with a sense of satisfaction. I attribute this to our longstanding partnership here- a rare feat in Uganda, and the faith in us by the ladies and gentlemen of our readership and the advertising industry. I salute all of you.

The story of Red Pepper is long and will be a subject of an upcoming autobiography. But suffice to say, I am grateful to God for enabling us to achieve a FIRST in Uganda’s print media history- the first indigenously owned private newspaper to clock 20 years uninterrupted save for closure by the state, three times.

Ours, therefore, has been an act of God. An act of God because we started from virtually nothing- only borrowed computers, furniture, and space.

I am particularly happy to note that the ingenuity of our ‘mustard seed’ added a brick to Uganda’s transformation by creating opportunity for so many, inspire hundreds of youths, rise from zero to a medium level taxpayer and inspire a human interest brand of journalism – the Tabloid- that shifted the media terrain in Uganda for good.

I recall in 2004 when my friend Robert Kabushenga told me how a New Vision researcher had discovered that the arrival of Red Pepper did not affect Daily Monitor and New Vision’s readership but instead, brought into the media space, a new brand of readers. That is what innovation does- creating new markets and wealth.

DAWN OF THE DISRUPTORS

While we swam in success, the forces of technology that had defined the 3rd millennium of the anno Domini or Common Era were not sleeping.

The 2000s birthed new media technologies such as the HDTV technology which was developed in the ’90s but took off in the 2000s, bringing the world into our living rooms, giving traditional media a run for their money. They gave us the Apple Mac OS X (2000), USB flash drives (2000), iPod (2001), Microsoft Windows XP (2001), Blackberry (2003), Facebook (2004) Twitter (2006), Kindle (2007), and the iPhone (2007). This period of ‘technovation’ also saw Google gain ground in Uganda in 2006.

Social networking sites such as Facebook surfaced in 2008 creating a whole new audience that communicated with each other outside the traditional ‘Letters to the Editor.’ Around the same year or much earlier, a few Ugandans joined a new microblogging site, Twitter. Not to be rendered to the Stone Age by technology, I decided to join Facebook in 2008 and Twitter in June 2009. I recall struggling to learn how to live-tweet while following President Yoweri Museveni’s Independence Day speech of that year. If my mind serves me well, the other few folks included Allan Kasujja (@kasujja).

But as these new media technologies penetrated every aspect of life in Uganda, creating new citizen journalists, demystifying the old traditional media models of communication, and creating new platforms for cheap news and advertising space, the traditional print hegemony wobbled. By 2016, national newspaper circulations were plummeting according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations report.

ALTERNATIVE MEDIA & THE RISE OF THE REST:

As noted above, the arrival of new media technologies as an alternative media, spelt a ‘rise of the rest’ phenomenon rendering traditional media almost inconsequential.

By 2016, circulations started to bite because new media had become cheaper and convenient alternatives. Globally, hundreds of newspapers closed. Here in Uganda, local titles suffered the most. By September 2020, global newspaper advertising had lost significant revenues. A report by the international audit firm, PWC, published in September 2020, predicted a global newspaper advertising fall from $49.2 billion in 2019 to $ 36 billion in 2024.

The same report projected that global newspaper circulation and subscriber revenue would be expected to fall from $58.7 billion in 2019 to $50.4 billion in 2024. This is because the ‘rise of the rest’ phenomenon has created new and measurable audiences outside traditional media especially using Artificial Intelligence.

To understand the extent of this disruption, by the time of writing this article on Friday last week, 3.5 billion people had searched for information, which includes news, on Google by 19:00hrs, meaning on that day, over 40,000 people were visiting the Google ‘virtual library’ every second on average. Not print media, not the National Library on Buganda Road.

With roughly 2.85 billion monthly active users, Facebook has become the largest ‘newspaper’ worldwide. From here, the microblogging application, Twitter, has created an audience of over 300 million monthly active users.

According to www.statista.com, as of 2020, there was an estimate of 2.1 billion YouTube users worldwide, and by the end of August this year, there will be over 1.2 billion Instagram users worldwide.

Thus, if Facebook and Twitter were virtual countries- which they are- they are bigger than China and the United States combined, with two omnipotent Presidents; Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.

If YouTube is a virtual continent, it is bigger than Africa, Europe and America combined. It’s Rubambansi (Controller of the earth) is Chad Hurley. And if Instagram is another virtual audience, it is only less than the population of Africa by about 200 million people- for now. Its Kamala byonna is Mark Zuckerberg.

In media terms, Google is a global world’s digital newspaper with 3.5 billion readers, Facebook (2.8 billion), Instagram (2.1 billion), Twitter (300 million), and so forth. Google made $147 billion from adverts in 2020 while global newspaper advertising revenue was only $43 billion down from $110 billion in 2007.

Let’s look at the Ugandan situation.

About 28.4 million Mobile phone connections were registered in January this year. This is 60.3 % of the total population. 20 years ago, it was just 1.16 cellular subscriptions per 100 people. While there were 4.5 million smartphones in the first quarter of 2018, this figure will rise to 10 million by August this year, an increase of six million smartphones, according to the information I have obtained from NITA-U.

Internet wise, the number of internet connections was 12.16 million by January 2021 and these users were an increase by 1.5 million users (1.4%) between 2020 and 2021.

On the social media side, over 3.4 million Ugandans were detected on the different platforms between January 2020 and January 2021, an increase of over 900,000 new subscribers in just 10 months.

New media technologies, therefore, have not only disrupted traditional media but have also rendered countries borderless. Citizens have demystified government and disrupted quasi democracies here and abroad. For the first time, individuals like President Yoweri Museveni, Kiiza Besigye, Bobi Wine, Anne Kansiime, Jose Chameleone, Zari Hassan, Bad Black, Bebe Cool, etc; have audiences larger than the entire Ugandan traditional media audiences combined. They have become their own newspapers, radio stations, TV stations, name it. Instead of placing adverts in the print media, companies are looking for these influencers. Where they cannot succeed, they have used FacebookTwitter, and Instagram to promote their products cheaper and better in order to cash on the 3.4 million audience.

For the first time in the history of traditional media, we are experiencing the kind of disruption witnessed towards the start of the First Industrial Revolution when the invention of the printing press in 1440 disrupted newspaper journalism as we had long known it since 59 BC when the earliest ‘newspaper,’ the Acta Diurna, hit the streets of Rome. This is the age newspapers are living in. the internet age that has ushered in the 4th Industrial Revolution technologies that are busy remodeling newsrooms and news consumption.

To get to the grip of this, take a look at the picture below. Of the ten top billionaires in the world, nine are invested in technology. If technology is the thing today, this reality should point us to a possible lucrative future!

 

THE FUTURE OF NEWSPAPERS

Do the newspapers have a future? There is a lot of debate as to whether print media will survive this technology wave. This debate has been raging inside Red Pepper since 2008 and we do not seem to have a clear answer yet. But it is important to remember that the consequences of disruptive technologies have been consistent over time and space- the obliteration of industries that refuse to adapt.

Although my colleague James Mujuni likes to argue that the record holder for the top selling book in the world remains the bible for having sold over 5 billion copies by 1995, I often remind him that publishers of the holy book have since conceded to digital access version. And herein, lies a lesson in the need for convergence, complementarity, and print-digital integration in order to follow and match the new audience trajectory.

With technology now a fact of our lives, and prospects for the future changing constantly, what this means for the future of newspapers is that although print media audience patterns are shifting, actual readership has only mutated. This calls on us to adapt, invent, and innovate technologies that can create a complementation of the printed and digital world. This is how Facebook was born out of the need to enhance human interconnectedness. We will need to create a connection between the digital (virtual) and print.

My challenge to the Ugandan print media is to look to the 24 year-old tech geeks, the same age I was when we disrupted existing newspapers, to think about the newspaper of the future in 20 years from now. We might get amazing prototypes that project a smartphone-like gadget newspaper.

 PARTING SHOTS

At a personal level, 20 years of Red Pepper have constituted a journey of blessings, divine favor, and also a thankless job in the pursuit of fearless journalism for freedom of expression and justice in this country.

Besides this, I thank the heavens for how this rough and tough of a journey has shaped me; a poor grass -thatch dwelling nobody, who won two prestigious leadership fellowships from the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Programme (www.alinstitute.org) and the Crans Montana Forum (www.cmf.ch), among other awards. These awards have not only shaped and sharpened my pan Afrikan view of Africa, but they have also created for me useful contacts in both the northern hemisphere and the southern, especially in every African country. Red Pepper provided the space for me to exhibit noble values that the scouts from these two fellowships noticed.

This same journey has made me meet prominent politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, businessmen and women, military personnel, religious leaders, and CEOs that have been useful especially in the back-end, saving Red Pepper from the various storms it has endured.

It has granted me the resources to generously change the lives of 27 vulnerable children, former herdsmen and maids who, for their formal skills, are now working for Uganda and helping other vulnerable children. Those who attended my mother’s burial in 2017, were able to hear these children testify to the graces of God. This is because my life philosophy has always been inspired by Fr. James Keller’s (R.I.P) belief that ‘ a candle loses nothing by lighting another.’

It is for this reason that I have met and interviewed two presidents and chatted with four First Ladies in the region and in Europe.

It is for the same reason that I was wedded by an archbishop, had 24 top Ugandan artists including Bobi Wine, Chameleon, Juliana, and Bebe Cool sing at my stag party for free in 2006, and His Eminence Emmanuel Cardinal- Emeritus Wamala baptized my daughter.

It is for similar reasons that in 2017, around 511 Ugandans visited me at Murchison Bay Luzira, leaving prison warders wondering who this small boy was.

I want to tell the young people reading this story that my principal has always been Character Consistency. Good begets good. Evil begets evil. It is up to you to choose which path you want but you will certainly triumph in it if you keep your characterization consistent.

I thank you Red Pepper. To my colleagues, the future beckons a new way of thinking. A new ‘disruption.’

God bless you all.

Contact: @RugyendoQuotes / [email protected],com/ 0752 466 778.

Editor: The author is a Co-founder- The Pepper Publications Ltd.

 

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