October 20th 2017

Media / Watchdog

Winners, losers in Nation’s editorial changes and what readers should expect

The big winner of the changes is Mr Mutuma Mathiu, who until yesterday was the group managing editor with greater oversight over the Daily Nation. Mr Mathiu has now been appointed the Executive Editor for Print division, making him the de facto editor in chief.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comFriday, 13 Jan 2017 12:17 EAT

Mr Mshindi.

The full extent of the Nation Media Group’s editorial changes that were announced yesterday has become clear. A staff memo from the group’s editorial chief Tom Mshindi containing the new leadership structure has been widely reported by news websites this morning. The memo indicated that the changes were being made in line with the group’s commitment to reengineer its systems in line with “the rapidly changing media market dynamics”.

Among the changes the Nation seeks to respond to is the increased reliance by media useers on electronic (mostly mobile) platforms instead of traditional print platforms. “The effort so far has met with varying degrees of success and it remains on-going since it is a journey rather than a destination,” Mr Mshindi noted, a euphemistic admission that the group, by far the largest and most resourced Kenyan media house, is lagging in online content development as explained in later sections of this article.

The big winner of the changes is Mr Mutuma Mathiu, who until yesterday was the group managing editor with greater oversight over the Daily Nation. Mr Mathiu has now been appointed the Executive Editor for Print division, making him the de facto editor in chief. The memo said he would be “primarily responsible for the Daily Nation newspaper, but also gives him overall oversight over the editors responsible for the Saturday Nation, Sunday Nation and Taifa Leo.”

To assuage the angst of production editors who would abhorr such encroachment in their territory, the memo said “The product editors will be in charge of their products, making the key publishing decisions, including decisions on the headlines, pictures, story placement, product improvements, innovations, etc.” Still, there was a rider: The line editors “will be responsible for adherence to the editorial policy and guidelines, and also work closely with the commercial departments to support the achievement of commercial targets.” There can be no person better placed to determine the adherence to editorial policies than the executive editor.

The product editors are Ng’ang’a Mbugua (Saturday Nation), Michael Owuor (Sunday Nation), Nicholas Muema (Taifa), John Kamau (Investigations and Special Projects), John Agunda (Op-Ed), Elias Makori (Sports) and Bernard Mwinzi (Health and Science). The appointments were seen as promotions for all these editors, some of whom, like Mr Agunda, had served the company loyally for decades without being recognised with an executive position.

Mr Agunda is one of the Nation's and the country's most experienced editors, and is reputed for level-headedness. Mr Owuor's appointment was consistent with recent rise in the Nation establishment, owing, in the opinion of insiders, to his strictness to language and disapassionate views on national politics, on which he, in the words of a Sunday Nation reporter, "generally ebbs with the flow".

Mr Mbugua is more or less is the same position as before. He formerly served as chief sub-editor and more recently as Mr Mathiu's deputy, with great oversight over news. Mr Makori is a decades-old fixture of the Nation's sports desk, and his responsibilities have grown tremendously in the era of convergence. Messrs Kamau and Mwinzi have been acting in these positions for months.

Among the losers are former managing editors Eric Obino (Sunday Nation) and Tim Wanyonyi (Saturday Nation). We reported erroneously yesterday that Mr Obino had left the company. In fact, he will take over a new job as Head of Production. While the company's restructuring may give the position greater responsibility, the post has been used in Kenya mostly as a soft landing for senior product editors on their way to eventual retirement, as Mr Okech Kendo learnt at the Standard not long ago.

Mr Mshindi’s memo spoke highly of the role, saying Mr Obino will have “overall responsibility of the print production process, quality improvement, design and graphics. A critical role of the production hub will be to ensure that stories that the product editors plan to use big in their papers are reworked to add the value and relevance that will make them worthwhile Day 2 stories.”

What the memo means in practice is that Mr Obino is the new revise editor but with a greater responsibility of infusing life into stories to make them relevant long after news has broken and been read on online platforms. “This is key to ensuring continued resonance of our newspapers to readers that already get most of their breaking news freely on social media platforms,” Mr Mshindi said. Working under Mr Obino will be John Kiplagat (Chief Sub Editor), Joe Mbuthia (Production Editor), Kibe Kamunyu (Quality Editor), the Revise/Rewrite team, the Chief Graphic Designer and the Chief Librarian.

On his part, Mr Wanyonyi assumes the position of Head of Content, described as “a role responsible for generation of content.” The kind of content generation Mr Wanyonyi will coordinate is quite clear. “All reporters and the news reporting teams will report into this new role whose first customer will be the online platforms,” the memo said, indicating that Mr Wanyonyi “will ensure that our news production cycle is not primarily dictated by the print but by the immediacy of digital. He will set up a 24-hour newsroom and ensure that breaking news is very rapidly available for posting online and work closely with the online team to ensure that the stories are regularly updated.”

The resources at his disposal signify that Mr Wanyonyi will be responsible solely for breaking news. His immediate assistants are Bernard Namunane, formerly the chief political reporter who has risen the ranks as assignments editor, the bureau chiefs and the Photo Editor. With the appointment, the Nation is seeking to compete more effectively against the Star, Capital FM and other emerging sites including the Kenya Free Press that have occasionally beaten it to news.

Mr Wanyonyi’s role will diminish the responsibility of Churchill Otieno, who has been the digital editor for years. While Mr Otieno has a high-sounding new title of Editor for Online and New Content, such a robust change in his docket may suggest that his portfolio will now not include content generation, leaving him a patch of tasks like distributing content into Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

The memo said his role “will be the first contact point with readers and consumers interacting with our content online. This is the unit that will ensure that our websites and social media platforms are first with the news and are constantly updated. It will also be responsible for originating and executing ideas that should place us at the forefront of content innovations, for example as is happening under Nation Newsplex.”

“Churchill will also liaise very closely with the Digital team to facilitate synergies around content generation and use of analytics to give editors a better understanding of customer behavior and the performance of our content,” Mr Mshindi said. However, an insider spoke of the role much less highly, saying the company could as well rely on social media-savvy interns to do the job. Tellingly, working under Mr Otieno will be some of the least recognised staffers in the Nation newsroom such as Harrison Misiko (Online Editor), the team responsible for updating posts on social media, the Newsplex of graphic designers and video producers.

Outside Nairobi, Mr Mshindi announced the scrapping of two news bureaus. The Kisii and Kisumu bureaus have been merged under Gekara Mayaka, an exceptional reporter whose talents the company has not fully exploited. Mr Mayaka has been in Kisumu and will now take over responsibility for Kisii, which covers Nyamira, Migori and Narok counties as well. Redundant Kisii bureau chief (the positions were christened as Regional Editors some time back) John Kiplangat will move take over from Dave Opiyo in Eldoret, with Mr Opiyo being recalled to Nairobi as a sub editor on the revision desk working under Mr Obino.

Former Mombasa bureau chief, the experienced Njeri Rugene, has been recalled to Nairobi also as a content writer. Her position is to be taken over by Lucas Barasa, another not-so-old hand in the Nation who has been heading the Meru bureau which is now abolished and merged into Nyeri which will be under Leonard Nguchu. The only bureau chief whose position remains unaffected is Caroline Wafula of Nakuru.

The changes reflect the Nation's commitment to retain its market leadership by doing away with systems that are outliving their usefulness. The company is constantly reviewing its ad revenues downwards as more corporate clients move from the print to online platforms where it has been a late entrant. While the Nation newspapers' circulation and advertising revenues thwart the competition by far, its websites are playing catch up games against the Standard's, with the third placed Star's is fast catching up on it.

The Nation is apparently keen to replicate breaking news strategies that the Star has relied on in recent years but which media analysts say can only give a media house temporary "glucose boost". Even though the Star's website generates high traffic, the success has come at the price of immense loss of credibility, as this website reported in November.

The Standard has adopted a varying degree of the digital-first tactics, with a Standard Digital Edition (Nairobian-style news) that appeal to young people but is unsustainable in the long term. One of the site's trending headlines recently was a report that the Zimbabwean football federation had taken a number of the country's women to Brazil to get pregant with Brazilian football stars.

If Nation went this way, the mainstream media would quicken its loss of credibility, and their own impact and revenues would suffer further, according to analysts contacted by this website. Mr Mshindi’s memo said that, “Valuable lessons have been learnt and we continue to encourage teams to embrace this change wholly and provide us with feedback we can use to improve the process.”

Apparently, the print business is still so lucrative for Nation that the changes are designed only “to protect and keep improving our print business,” according to Mr Mshindi’s memo. This may explain the rationale of Mr Obino's appointment to a position where, in the reading of a journalism lecturer, "he's supposed to extract water from stone, recreating old news as news a day after."

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