Why the old journalism of old Kenya is dying

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BY EZEKIEL MUTUA

The Standard on Sunday of September 12 headlined The Senate and Governorship and sub-headlined …as old order ends was, quite simply and without any exaggeration, a classic collectors item in the world of publishing.

Like the newspapers that announced the declaration of the State of Emergency on October 20, 1952, Jomo Kenyatta’s release from restriction on August 14, 1961, Independence on December 12, 1963, Jomo’s death on August 22, 1978, and President Kibaki’s first inauguration on December 29, 2002, the Standard on Sunday Issue No 244 was the kind of newspaper one would like to keep intact for 20 years.

While most other Sunday papers seemed to have run out of ideas, particularly as there was nothing much actually happening that weekend, the Sunday Standard brought with depth, colour and twirl the very best of developmental journalism to ever appear in our local papers.

For the first time since 1969, the Standard had a genuinely better paper than the Nation, page by page. It explicated the new Kenya, region by region, issue by issue across 20 pages, exemplifying the new journalism this country is so badly in need of.

From superb coverage of good governance for the forthcoming 47 counties to education for youths non-academic talents; from what it takes to be governor to Uasin Gishu County as Kenya’s breadbasket to what next for Nyeri County after President Kibaki’s exit to the Interim Independent Electoral Commission’s ability to tackle electoral malpractice, this was instantaneously recognisable as the new journalism for the new Kenya.

Speaking as reader and experienced media analyst, I felt that the beginnings of a turning point occurred that weekend that could well see the tables turned on the Nation Media Group in the circulation and ratings stakes for weekend readership. Eight more weeks of the Standard on Sunday like the one of September 12 and the Sunday Nation like the one of the same day and a tipping point will surely occur in which a Standard title outpaces and outstrips a Nation title for the first time since 1969.

Remember that the Nation titles were launched in 1960, when the Standard title was already 57 years old. The Standard did not get a Sunday title until 1980, in its own 77th year and when the Sunday Nation was already 20-years-old. It took the Nation titles nine long years to overtake and outpace the Standard. The turning-point was the Tom Mboya assassination on Saturday July 5, 1969, which the Nation covered much more promptly and comprehensively than the Standard.

Legendary photojournalist Mohamed Mo Amin boosted the Nation’s coverage tremendously. He was in the vicinity of the assassination scene and rushed there just in time to see the wounded Mboya on a stretcher being placed in an ambulance. Mo jumped into the ambulance and took the historic pictures of paramedics administering oxygen and other first-aid measures on the stricken Minister for Planning and Economic Affairs.

Ever unfaltering and fully aware of the historical significance the unfortunate event would have on the future of the nation, Mo took two sets of images of Mboya breathing his last video footage and black-and-white still photos. The video footage he sold the same afternoon to London Weekend Television (State broadcaster VoK, now KBC, would simply not have known what to do with it in the one-party dispensation of that time) and the still images to the Nation within an hour of the shooting. The Nation overtook the Standard there and then and never looked back.

Such are the tipping points that decide the fate of media houses and other entities. I am firmly convinced that Kenya’s next big media house will achieve pre-eminence by being able to interpret, explicate, extrapolate and showcase the dynamics of the unfolding new Kenya.

Believe you me, the dynamics of development journalism are finally upon us in such a way that the demand for journalism that is genuinely anchored in the values of integrity, professionalism, transparency and quality service delivery are going to become decisive factors. This is journalism that will accompany the sea of change that is coming in all sectors and facets of Kenyas national life. This journalism will determine the make-or-break factors in various media houses.

The old journalism of the old Kenya, the sort of media content on which the more successful mainstream houses have for decades based their commercial success on, is on its last legs. As the quality of life improves through their own sheer effort and purposefulness and as they meet the challenges and hurdles of rebuilding, reinventing, reinvigorating and restoring Kenya, most Kenyans will have increasingly less room for journalism that is three parts trivia and only one part development.

The overdose of political claptrap that the media at times unleashes on Kenyans like helpless and hapless recipients will not wash any more. And when the chickens come home to roost, it is development journalism like the one you see in Kenya Today that will thrive in this country for the next decade and beyond.

Building the new Kenya will not be a matter of groping in the dark. It will require a media sector that shines the spotlight of journalistic scrutiny on every aspect of governance. The Standard on Sunday of September 12 gave more than a hint of what is coming. The Sunday Nation and I say this with a heavy heart, having cut my journalistic teeth at the Nation Media Group was, unfortunately, just business as usual, the old journalism of groping in the dark, of titillation, spectacle, speculation and minimum analysis.

(The writer is the Director of Information and Public Communications of the Republic of Kenya email:emutua @information.go.ke)

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