By Andrew M. Mwenda
On December 17th last year, the first issue of The Independent hit the streets. I remember vividly one of our colleagues, Asuman Bisika coming with his eyes beaming into our small office along Kanjokya Street with the first copy of the magazine. It looked wonderful and the mood was ecstatic. Later that day, friends sent me text messages: ‘Better than Newsweek,’ one of them read; ‘Better than Time’, another announced. This was encouragement, not a statement of assessed fact.
The Independent was born in a moment of great hope. Yet we sometimes suffered from self doubt. We were plunging into the unknown especially for those leaving secure jobs. What if the product failed? Many colleagues from Monitor with whom we had planned to begin the paper balked. But a few of us persisted; driven by our belief in independent journalism, our conviction that we stood for the right cause, our confidence in the people of Uganda to support us and our moral obligation to place our ideals above our immediate material self-interests.
Our biggest worry was not the threat of state repression.
That we expected. We agonised on whether we would survive the rigours of the market given the competitive nature of the media industry today. We were mostly journalists, not businessmen. The advice of Michael Gerber in his famous book, The E-Myth Revisited used to ring in our minds: knowing the technical work of a business is different from knowing the business that does that technical work. That is to say, being a good journalist does not make you a good manager of a media business.
We talked, we debated and we consulted. Friends gave us encouragement, others discouragement. Many pointed out our weaknesses some showed us our core strengths. We worked on the business plan trying to forecast the performance of the product. Who should be our target audience and why? How many copies would we sell? At what price? How much money would we earn from advertising? We rented office space. We put together a team. Above strategy, our greatest asset was our undying faith in the people of Uganda ‘ their strong belief in a free and independent media. Finally, we put out the product.
One year later, you, our reader made the final decision ‘ you gave us a vote of confidence with your wallet, and so did our advertisers. We have often let you down: Our print quality has sometimes been poor; our design and layout may at times be imperfect; our editorial content has sometimes not met your expectations; often there are many typos that make it annoying to read the magazine; sometimes entire sentences are wrong or text is missing. And we agonise over these failures.
But you retained confidence in us because you trust that we will always publish the truth without fear or favour and we will always defend freedom, no matter the cost. Neither jail nor torture ‘ not even death will ever scare us from publishing the truth. We will always do this with honesty and with integrity. We will always ensure that we are truthful and accurate, fair and balanced in our news reporting and analysis. We may falter sometimes ‘ that is because we are human. But our commitment to the highest standards of journalism will never waver.
Individuals among us ‘ especially me ‘ have sometimes, and will many times write opinions or take positions on public issues that many readers disagree with. But such positions will be taken purely out of intellectual conviction, not because of political or business influence on The Independent. And they only reflect the foundational philosophy of the news magazine: that ideas and views do not need to be popular to find space in The Independent. Our greatest asset is our integrity.
Looking back over the last one year, this has been an improbable journey. Our circulation sales stand beyond our expectations. The response of advertisers has followed a similar pattern. Our strategy combined with good luck has given us results beyond our wildest dreams. Where our business plan predicted huge losses, we broke even. Where we expected to be in a small dingy office, now we have a modern and fully equipped newsroom. Where we thought our brand would take years to gain root, now we are a widely recognised product on the Ugandan news menu.
Professionally, we have won three international awards within the first year of our existence, an unheard of thing. Our reporter, John Njoroge, won the prestigious international journalism award, the Natali Lorenzo Prize for human rights reporting. Our other reporter, Frank Nyakairu (now with Reuters) won the Knight International Journalism Prize alongside CNN’s Christiana Amanpour and John Burnes of the New York Times. I won the International Press Freedom Award. Ugandans voted us the best, and the world community accepted their verdict.
Our work has come at a price. We have been raided by the Joint Anti Terrorism Taskforce, arrested and detained by police, arraigned before courts of law and charged with heinous crimes. Police has confiscated our computers, flash disks, CDs, documents and business plans. I personally have been kidnapped by the Black Mambas. Yet behind the public names of reporters are our editors and designers who sit quietly working on the newsmagazine and our staff in advertising, finance, circulation and administration whose efforts never get recognised by the public. These are people who suffer the consequences of our reporting.
We have been humbled by our achievements so far. We are conscious that such business and professional accomplishments in so short a time can inflate our egos and make us lose our bearing. Therefore, as we celebrate a good first year, we also dedicate ourselves to continue to exhibit humility. We believe that our achievements are not because we are special but because you our readers and advertisers are special. We also recognise that although some of our achievements are because of our deliberate strategy, many of them are products of good luck. Above all we have succeeded because you believed in us. Please accept our Merry Christmas greetings and our best wishes for the New Year.