Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Counting the Years, Day and Night

Now that we are 15 years old, it is proper to jump and celebrate this all important anniversary which, in a clear way, confirms our energies and number one position on the print media market.

On a cold July, 1993 afternoon, about five people were in a studio at the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC)—there was one radio station, then—to record a promotion for The Nation, a new newspaper on the market.

"They are a mouthpiece of cassava growers," said one voice.

"Wrong," said another. "They are a mouthpiece of the poor."

"You are wrong," said yet another. "They are a mouthpiece of a political party."

"Wrong," said yet a fourth voice. "They are a mouthpiece of all."

There was one immediate dilemma. The promotion didn’t come to an agreeable conclusion. This, in part, meant the newspaper would be for all, which, I think, remains the case today. But there was a high mountain to climb. The market was already crowded with established media houses.

Some have suggested that there were over 30 newspapers in 1993.

Was there a market for a new newspaper? The immediate answer, perhaps the only one, was no. But the question is illegitimate.

There will never be a market for a new product, never. Every product must create a market. The counsel from a Spanish poet Antonio Machado (July 26, 1875-February 22,1939) is clear in his poem Pathwalker: "There is no path, You must make the path as you walk."

The new newspaper made its own path and walked on it; The Nation, coming out twice a week on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, made its own market that has grown and today, 15 years later, Nation Publications Limited (NPL) is a proud owner of four products: The Nation, Weekend Nation, Nation on Sunday and Nation Online. We are on the streets seven days a week and online 24/7.

We boast of the highest—though not satisfactory—circulation and an assembly of a cream of journalists in the names of Peter Kanjere, Garry Chirwa, Gracian Tukula and Mabvuto Banda. This seems great and there is a tendency in such times to forget where we have come from.

"NPL grew from an idea—a seed," recalls chief executive officer Mbumba Achuthan. "An idea to come up with a paper that would disseminate truthful information at a time when information was a highly sort-after commodity."

Thus the genesis of NPL was like a small seed, a mustard seed perhaps, too small to make an impact on anything yet when it germinates, it grows big and offers shelter to people and animals.

Three people came together. Aleke Banda, Achuthan and Ken Lipenga and discussed the idea of a newspaper. Big things, as NPL confirms, start from ideas, not money. What we lack are ideas not money, because ideas bring money while money does not necessarily bring ideas.

Later, Lipenga brought in Alfred Ntonga from Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL). Achuthan roped in Billy Mphande, our area manager for the Centre, who retires later this year. Achuthan and Mphande met at The Monitor newspaper, a daily that died an artificial death.

Alfred Ntaula joined the team. He was from The UDF news. Bertha Masiku, the MP for Blantyre Blantyre City West was heading the advertising section. Mphande brought in for Masauko Chiomba, now business manager for our Mzuzu office. Finally, a messenger was employed.

It was a team of seven people, excluding Aleke, of course, who became chair of NPL. Humble resources too: a family car, a typewriter, a computer, some furniture. Lipenga brought his personal computer. Just like that. And a journey started with the first step.

"Nothing was impossible because we worked as a team," recalls Achuthan.

They could go anywhere, at any time, and do anything. Achuthan—then managing director, now chief executive officer—went on editorial assignments. Mphande did the same. Yet the two were not part of the newsroom.

How, then, did The Nation make its own market when newspapers were dying? One project that carved a place on the market for The Nation was the 1983 Mwanza murder stories. The small team of NPL staff cracked the idea of following up. They decided that if the people who killed the three ministers and one MP were to be found, The Nation, a biweekly, should be the paper to find them.

It worked by cooperation, of course. It was the chief accountant Mphande who pledged to provide a source who worked for the Police and was sent to take pictures at the "accident" place at Thambani.

He was called Mr X by the newspaper and worked with editor-in-chief Lipenga. The two formed a team. Mr X took Lipenga to a former PMF man who actually killed the three ministers Dick Matenje, Aaron Gadama, Twaibu Sangala and MP David Chiwanga for Chikwawa.

"The guy was tall, heavily built, short tampered, deeply suspicious and capable of killing a fellow human being," recalls Lipenga in a 1998, August, interview with The Nation.

Lipenga went to the killer’s home which remains anonymous up to now. The man was uncomfortable, says Lipenga, and in his drunken state, wanted to go away before the meeting was over.

Lipenga had to persuade him to stay by offering to buy Kachasu. When the illegal drink came, Lipenga had to partake to confirm the rapport between them. Now, Lipenga was not just another journalist on the street. He was editor-in-chief and a PhD, a man who would have been professor had he stayed on Chancellor College where he worked in the English Department.

This was a practical and theoretical journalism lesson: that sometimes we have to go down to the level of our sources to get information on behalf of people, information for a big story that can shake a country.

Once the story was out, The Nation became a giant of the streets. The Bakili Muluzi administration instituted a commission of inquiry and the result was the house arrest of first president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and some of his close associates.

They were acquitted, of course, but the aim of The Nation was not to get anyone in prison. It was, as Achuthan says of the founding principle, to tell people the truth on issues of national importance.

Since then, NPL has remained the country’s number one media house. Saturday Nation (now Weekend Nation) followed, then came Nation on Line and, finally, Nation on Sunday. That is not all. NPL has a fully fledged design studio where advertisements are made. It is under
ImangiNation, a subsidiary of NPL, now becoming almost a group of companies.

Early Days

When there was Operation Bwezani, recalls Achuthan, "we all spread out into different parts of the country to get what we could [and] when it came to production time, we all worked together to put everything together. Some of us even went on delivery, served coffee and tea to people, sold adverts—did everything. It was a good training ground in writing, editing, designing, distribution—everything."

The lifeline of any private media house is advertising and even here NPL is leading the way. But it was, as usual, a humble beginning with few clients from the editorial front, most of them contacted as individual friends but in other cases contacted from a purely sales point of view. Achuthan remembers Maurice Newa well

"He was instrumental, while at Lever Brothers [now Unilever], in introducing big advertising as we know it today," says Achuthan. "He took that culture with him to BAT and then on to Sobo and it spread from those points. We also dealt mainly with Top Advertising and later organisations such as Marketpoint. Others came onto the scene."


Nation has grown technologically from one computer and one typewriter to state-of-the-art technology. We have perhaps the best machines in town.

Our computers are on local area network. We get Reuters copy electronically. This is unlike in the past when we used to go to Malawi News Agency (Mana) to get Reuters copy on paper, bring to office and typeset. Now everything has gone satellite.

Even printing has gone technology. In fact, in the early days, we used to print in Lilongwe from Blantyre for printing and distribute thereafter. Next our paper was printed at Blantyre Printing and Packaging (BP&P). But later we bought our machine, a web offset, from United Printers which we sold to Fattani Printers after acquiring a modern web printer.

In the early days, NPL developed ties with a Netherlands organisation that advises businesses in developing world.

"An elderly gentleman named Ben Romijn came thrice to work with us and help us set standards and benchmarks," says Achuttan. "He helped us with our first survey which set the direction for later surveys which we have consistently carried out to tell us our place on the market. He also helped us establish benchmarks in many areas of our operations, especially editorial."

The advantage was that NPL was able to send people to Holland to learn about newspaper operations and this helped us in setting and correcting our operations.


Minutes after five in the afternoon on a Thursday, Roblee Mkamanga, the circulation manager, is busy in her office, making sure all subscribers and readers will get their paper the next day.
She is printing the circulation list, which her office does everyday, making sure it is accurate and up-to-date. Meanwhile, there is sound from the printing house, indicating work in progress.

They have just started printing the inside pages like features, business, leisure.

But the newsroom is not yet through with Friday’s newspaper, especially pages one, two, three and some sports pages, mainly the back page. Elizabeth Lisuntha Banda, the deputy editor responsible for current news, is busy reading stories and deciding with her editor Edward Chitsulo, which story leads.

By this time, most staff of NPL are at home. But as some staff get out of the gate, others are reporting for work in the print section. The newsroom is making last touches. Lizzie Lupiya, the designer of front page this evening, is receiving stories to start her work.

Aubrey Mchulu, the stonesub this evening, is waiting to read all the stories on pages one, two, three and sports pages. This is one way of making sure we have perfect text and pictures because the stories have already been read by two people.

As the newsroom finishes its work, the design studio gets busier making films that go to print. By this time, the advertising department is at home. They are through with adverts by about 3 pm. Films for advertisements were ready by five. Adverts for Weekend Nation and Friday’s The Nation have been done.

By 11 pm on Thursday night, printing of The Nation for Friday is over and it is being packed for Lilongwe and Mzuzu, so that circulation driver Charles Bonde should be in Lilongwe about dawn.

He stops over several places to leave newspapers on the way. By 3:30 am, he is in Lilongwe and some newspapers are leaving for Mzuzu, so that by 7:30 am people have the paper.

This, too, is the time some editorial staff are arriving at work on Friday for Weekend Nation and Nation on Sunday production. Staff who work on The Nation are on weekend, call it early weekend, because they work Sunday to Thursday, while those on Weekend Nation work Monday to Friday with Nation on Sunday staff working Tuesday to Saturday.

Ours is a place that is busy seven days a week throughout a year, hence we are counting the years, day and night.


NPL started in a house of a politician. Aleke had been released from Mikuyu Maximum Prison and joined the United Democratic Front (UDF), the original one which everybody describes as a team of dedicated politicians who wanted political change and development in Malawi.

Just when The Nation was launched Achuthan, recalls Lipenga, told Aleke: "You do realise, chief, that even if you took up a position in the new government, this paper would not always toe your line, don’t you?"

The result was a media house that has developed a reputation of honesty and balance. It is a media house that remains number one, partly because of its independence. Even when Aleke was in government, NPL did its work thoroughly, checking both the ruling and opposition parties.

Now that he president of Progressive Peoples Movement (PPM), NPL would have been championing the party. But that is not the case.

"Pressure from outside has always been there," says Achuthan. "AKB has withstood a lot of heat right from the time that NPL was established to now. His political colleagues have not always understood the role he has played in respecting the fact that if we are to do a good job, we should remain independent of him and his politics or any other politics for that matter.

"Some of his political colleagues have thought that he drives us to write certain stories or editorials. Some have even gone as far as to think he actually writes! Far from it. Many would be surprised to know that he reads and knows about the content of the newspaper at the same time that the rest of the readers do," she says.

This is so because of our editorial policy, our code of conduct and all other policies we have and the pride that we have in doing our work.

Everything else, as Achuthan understands, rests on editorial content, hence she "can confidently say that [Aleke] has trust in me and Alfred Ntonga’s leadership of the newsroom". Ntonga is deputy CEO and editor-in-chief.


What NPL does Achuthan want to leave to the next CEO, whoever he or she shall be? "A stable, strong, forward-looking and respected NPL, a platform of excellence that creates opportunities for its clients, staff and shareholders in Malawi and beyond," she says.

These are wise words that go well with what the founding editor-in-chief Ken Lipenga said in 1998 when NPL celebrated five years.

Last word? Jika Nkolokosa, then editor of NPL, asked Lipenga. "Congratulations for turning five, and hope to be there when The Nation turns a hundred, which it will."

Indeed it will. But as for now, we are 15 and that is our limit of celebration. Yet that does not stop us from hoping for a bigger future, especially when we shall hit 100 in 2093. Lipenga, now Minister of Economic Development, just like most of us, will for sure not be there, physically. But our names shall remain in the history of NPL.

The advert recorded that cold afternoon in July 1993, will be played again in 2093, perhaps. Then people will marvel at NPL: that it started with seven people in a crowded industry, employed about 200 people in 2008 and will be leading the way in 2093. Happy birthday NPL!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happy birthday NPL! You are indeed a paper that has some standards you endeavour to safeguard. Keep it up!

But could you please improve your online edition. It is contra your esteemed standards to have a site remaining unupdated for weeks and when it is done it is just in an inconsistent manner.

I would not be worried if I got an updated page late in the evening as long as it is daily.

Can you please be the window on Malawi as you so claim.

Chiku Manthalu
Linkopings Universitet