August 23rd 2017

Media / Watchdog

Star newspaper to send off dozens of employees in new restructuring

“They brought Spanish experts who came and said, ‘This is the way papers are designed in Spain and Italy and France,’” said a source, who divulged that the market responded with a stinging rebuke of plummeting sales from which the paper has never recovered.

By Free Press Reporternewsdesk@kenyafreepress.comWednesday, 16 Nov 2016 19:35 EAT

Star logo.

The Radio Africa Group plans to cut dozens of jobs at its Nairobi head office in a bid to reduce staff costs and promote efficiency. The job cuts, expected to be implemented either mid-December or by early January, are aimed to reduce the company’s monthly wage costs from Sh10 million to below Sh7 million.

The company has been going through lean times for more than a year, a crisis that got worse over the last quarter as print advertising revenues continue to plummet. An ongoing internal review of employee performance has revealed that some senior executives who earn six figure salaries could be axed. There is, however, apprehension among juniors, in particular reporters and correspondents, that some editors could recommend brutal cuts in the junior ranks in order to protect their own jobs.

By the end of the restructuring, which could take two months, the company shall have shed at least 60 jobs and achieved a thirty percent reduction in staff costs and better streamlined operations to attain profitability. The company’s main revenue streams are Classic 105 and Kiss 100 radio stations, with Jambo Radio also helping plug newspaper losses. A well-placed source in Radio Africa Group told the Kenya Free Press that the company plans to offer voluntary retirement for permanent employees across the departments, while most editorial staff will be eased out through contract terminations and non-renewals of contracts due to expire.

With the planned job cuts, the Star will be following in the footsteps of big media houses Nation Media Group, the Standard Group and Royal Media Services which between them have shed nearly 400 jobs over the last two years. The company’s financial slump is attributed to poor editorial leadership, a failed relaunch, and the maintenance of a large cadre of non-performing managers.

While radio employees’ salaries are matched by ratings and advertising revenues, most Star editors lack essential skills for the increasingly competitive market, and in recent months editorial leadership has fallen increasingly on the hands of an American expert Victoria Graham whose real work is training editor. Ms Graham, who worked for the Associated Press for 22 years, has a rich experience in training non-native English journalists, having served as a copy editor/foreign expert at the Shanghai Daily in China for nine years.

Operating costs aside, the Star’s bosses are also concerned that some editors and senior reporters are compromisingly embedded with top government officials. Of particular concern is a senior editor with responsibility over news and politics who has travelled abroad with President Uhuru Kenyatta and deputy president William Ruto many times. Often on the trips, the editor engaged in chatter with the head of state and his deputy and filed basically no reports. “Some form of embedment is unavoidable in today’s media environment, but when an editor’s preoccupation is to show how close he is to the head of state and other top officials that’s a red flag. This happens pretty often and the editor himself brags about his connections, which do not improve the paper’s coverage, to colleagues,” said a source.

It is findings like this which according to our sources deeply concern the paper’s manager William Pike who is frustrated at the Star losing its niche as a maverick that in its heydays could dissect state and opposition leaders and tread a thin line of independence. Mr Pike reported to believe that his paper is now seen largely as a mouthpiece of the government, with its exclusive articles generally perceived as state propaganda unless corroborated by other newspapers.

Ironically, the Star’s pro-state slant has hurt its revenues; as the government feels under no compulsion to court it, parastatals and well connected bluechip companies cut back their advertising at the paper. Then came failed relaunch after the arrival of South African investors who acquired a major stake in the paper last year. “They brought Spanish experts who came and said, ‘This is the way papers are designed in Spain and Italy and France,’” said a source, who divulged that the market responded with a stinging rebuke of plummeting sales from which the paper has never recovered.

To offset declining print advertising and sales, the paper turned to building its online coverage in order to capitalize on digital revenues through a mix of breaking news, screaming headlines and slicing stories from big events into multiple headlines. The innovation brought some firsts in Kenya. For example, in big events the paper’s field reporter would feed an office-based digital reporter who does the story as the events unfolds. The digital reporter puts out the headlines and a few paragraphs that enable the paper to stay ahead of the Nation and Standard whose stories were routinely rendered stale. The system would work best when followed up with indepth reporting for which the paper is totally bereft of expertise. As the digital stories are done hastily, editing has suffered too.

“Taken together, these challenges reflect a lack of editorial attentiveness at the top,” said a reporter at the newspaper who doubted whether the editors can be relied on to identify the journalists to be axed. “They need to take a hard look at what the problem is. Otherwise they may cut through the bone”, she said, expressing concern that the editors might want to prune critics, imperiling the paper’s ability to produce even the rudimentary news it does now.

Financially speaking, the whole media industry is affected by today's asymmetry in information brought about by globalisation and technology. Like in the west, Kenyan media has lost much credibility in recent years. “The lesson from Brexit and the election of Donald Trump is not the one our media has been amplifying - of rampant racism in the west. The lesson is of establishment media becoming too cosy with the powers that be and missing their country’s pulse,” said Dr Jared Obuya, a journalism lecturer at Moi University.

Dr Obuya explained that technology had “democratized information control and spread the monarchical powers the media relied on. That’s why suffering people everywhere commonly say, ‘I no longer read such and such paper. The people hate the press in the same way they have the ruling elite. To regain their credibility and profits the media needs to realise this critical theory of the press.”

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