Media Wars: How Nation overtook Standard

In Kenya, once upon a time, you symbolised high culture and educational achievement whenever you were seen merely carrying the STANDARD newspaper. Set up in Mombasa in 1902, the STANDARD remained Kenya’s only English-language daily all the way till the end of the 1950s.

Nearly 60 years later, a daily was born in Nairobi called NATION that has given the STANDARD no end of grief since then. By 1966 the NATION had overtaken the STANDARD both in circulation and in display advertisements (ads) following a period of cut-throat competition.

The “splash” headline that symbolised the NATION’s overthrow of the STANDARD after this Lonrho newspaper had monopolised the news and ads market in East Africa for over 50 years was, “HOW THE MIGHTY FELL”. The fallen ones – named on page one against their mugshots and contraptions – were world giants from other international rallies, many of whom, indeed, had, in earlier years, carried the victory in the East African event. By noon, not a single copy of the NATION was to be found anywhere in the streets of Nairobi.

In those pre-computers days, the switchboard was inundated with calls from all over the republic, readers demanding copies of the NATION. By contrast, even by the time that the sun was getting ready to disappear into the western horizon, veritable mountains of the STANDARD still stood at all sales points in the city. The STANDARD had just as many – probably even more – human imports from London’s Fleet Street.

A colonial newspaper?

The STANDARD had been a colonial newspaper throughout, governed, in the main, by white settler ethos and prejudices and remained European in content as well as outlook. The way in which the mighty had fallen on that Safari occasion long ago soon became a metaphor for the almost perpendicular downward path that this colonial mouthpiece began to describe on that very day. Vis-a-vis the NATION, the STANDARD has never recovered.

The explanation may lie in the fact that NATION’s London imports were mentally and culturally different, better brought up socially, more empathic with the interests of and difficulties facing a nation newly liberated from decades of oppression by the selfsame England from which Kenya was importing its journalistic trainers.

Block 5

By and large, the NATION’S Fleet Street imports were broader-minded than STANDARD’S, more in keeping with the nationalistic and innovative path that the soon-to-be-born political nation hoped to traverse. The NATION’s biases for Jomo Kenyatta and other nationalists who were just about to usher Kenya into independence were clear.

Against the inconvenient broadsheet form that the STANDARD took (what with its deeply conservative headlines), the NATION’S packaging – its tabloid format and fast headlines – kept with the youthful mood of a new nation. Almost from the word go, the NATION hired a highly capable indigene, the now legendary Hilary Ng’weno, as its chief editor, and –as the chief investor – the Aga Khan issued a clear Africanisation policy by which the company methodically replaced the British imports without lowering the quality and quantity of its product.

In its Africanisation process, by contrast, the STANDARD trundled. Yet it took the NATION almost a whole decade of extremely strenuous work to overtake the STANDARD in circulation and to make its first profit. Why? Because – contrary to popular assumption in Kenya and as Ng’weno should already have known – circulation is not a publication’s chief income earner. Everybody familiar with the world of commercial publishing knows that advertisements are by far the greater source of revenue for all market-oriented publishing houses.

Political dimension

But there was a political dimension as well to the rivalry between the STANDARD and the NATION. It is not lost on observers that Kiambu’s George Githii, editor-in-chief of both successively, was the personification of the tug-of-war, with two other Kiambu men – attorney-general Charles Njonjo cabinet minister Njoroge Mungai, as the titans on the opposite ends of the rope. President Jomo Kenyatta’s seat at State House was, of course, the target.

Githii used both the NATION and the STANDARD to the maximum to create a Njonjo cult with many thoroughgoing ramifications nationwide. The struggle to succeed Mzee Kenyatta was concluded only when a third-party, Vice-President Daniel arap Moi, pulled a fast one on the Kiambu titans. The self-styled “professor of politics” – hitherto a seemingly self-effacing man from the hitherto underrated Kalenjin community of the Rift Valley – moved fast to give all his tormentors from Kiambu District carefully woven political ropes from which all of them proceeded, as it were, to hang themselves.

Githii had, in the meantime, left Nation House not only in a huff but also ignominiously. He had received his marching orders after having published a series of scathing articles on the leader of the Bohra, an Islamic sect close to the Ismaili followers of the Aga Khan, the NATION’S principal shareholder. Githii lost no time in declaring total war on the NATION. First, he raided the NATION’s newsroom by offering employment and much better terms to all grades of reporters and sub-editors, claiming, into the bargain, that they represented the cream in Kenyan journalism.

Yet, by publishing their names and pictures in the next issue of the STANDARD, he shamelessly revealed to all and sundry that his new human acquisition were members of his own ethnic community. But, despite this bravado, the NATION beat the STANDARD in terms of both headlines and display adverts. It was soon after this that the STANDARD started writing and publishing a series of terribly uncivil editorial attacks on the NATION group as a whole.

Just a few years after he had transferred from the NATION to the STANDARD Githii suddenly disappeared from the local scene. Githii was then reported to have taken a job with the United Nations in Vienna, Austria, before crossing the Atlantic to become a Christian preacher in the streets of Ottawa, Canada.

The rivalry between the NATION and the STANDARD continues. But now it seems to be only commercial, revolving around the quality of the product, rather than political personalities outside the publishing firms. That is how it should be.

 

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