Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Hands-on journalism at the troubled Times of Zambia

I spent most of the day at the Times of Zambia, the nation's oldest newspaper but perhaps the most threatened of its three dailies. The Times and the Daily Mail are owned by the government, and the new ruling party has said it wants to privatize them, but some question whether there is a market to support three national dailies. "There is a bit of of hope," Deputy Managing Director Nick Shabolyo told me in an interview, acknowledging later, "You really wouldn't believe the kind of trouble we're going through."

When the newly elected government appointed new directors and deputies for the two papers on Oct. 21, its choices led to a fresh divergence between two papers that had similarly toed the ruling-party line during the run-up to the Sept. 20 election. The Mail, under a new deputy director with a magazine and wire-service background, became livelier, experimented with different writing styles, and gained circulation. The Times, headed by more traditional journalists, has proceeded more carefully and has lagged behind business-wise, though its journalism is generally less sensational that that of the Mail or The Post. "If you're looking for serious, accurate news, this is where to find it," Shabolyo said. "The Post is serious, but it accommodates both sides."

After the election season, in which the paper "Nobody wanted to advertise in this propaganda newspaper," said Shabolyo, who as deputy managing director runs the news operation but also has to worry about revenues. "We really went bad in terms of sales and circulation," declining to about 8,000, but are now "gaining every week" and are back above 12,000. He said he doubted the 15,000 figure claimed by his counterpart at the Mail.

The Times plans to announce organizational changes next week, Shabolyo said, but what it really needs is financial "breathing space" from the government, which he said owes the paper close to 4 billion kwacha (almost $800,000) for advertising and subscriptions. If the government decides to keep one paper, he said, it would probably be the Times, because of its historic nature and ties to the government, especially the first administration after independence in 1964.

I started the day at the Times by attending the morning news meeting, at which Shabolyo made suggestions and asked questions about many stories, then sat in on the daily conference call between the paper's office in the capital of Lusaka and its headquarters and production site in Ndola, four hours north. Then I met with Bob Sianjalika, a Times veteran who as political editor supervises most of the paper's hard-news gathering. In the afternoon I edited two reporters' stories. More on them and Bob later; time for my next meeting!

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