My trials and tribulations in the early years of The Guardian

10Feb 2016
Lucas Owen Mnubi
The Guardian
Commentary
My trials and tribulations in the early years of The Guardian

TWENTY years of a newspaper’s existence in an unpredictable work environment regulated by a far-from-friendly law regime might be cited as an achievement for The Guardian, the pioneering private English daily in Tanzania.

In fact, the paper’s outstanding success in the market evokes many untold stories.

So when I was asked to give my personal views on the sustainable growth of The Guardian, I was hesitant, because my reflections might be biased – and I might therefore be wrongly perceived as having stepped on people’s toes.

Life in the initial newsroom of The Guardian was really tough. We faced hordes of challenges; some technical, some related to an acute shortage of personnel. We only had a skeleton team of founding editorial staff members responsible for keeping afloat two daily papers published in two different languages (The Guardian and its Kiswahili sister publication, Nipashe).

It was only through perseverance and strong team spirit that a succession of editors have managed to lift the quality and image of The Guardian to an authoritative level both nationally and, presumably, internationally.
Major challenges

Much water has gone under the bridge since my departure from The Guardian newsroom several years ago. But in my view, from the word go, the paper (and its sister publications) has faced several major challenges as it fought to achieve sustainable growth.

Some of these related to recruiting competent editorial staff members, establishing a decent printing and publishing set-up, and dealing with political influence and handling of complaints.

Eventually, on April 1, 1994 (April Fool’s Day, if you will), a small team of 15 selected journalists (11 reporters and four editors, including me) was assembled in a tiny office on the 7th floor of the former Nasaco (National Shipping Company) building in Dar es Salaam.

We were warmly received by the personal assistant to the IPP Group executive chairman. Our task was to join hands and get The Guardian - and later, Nipashe – off the ground and running.

But in those early stages of preparation, disaster struck. That night, a big fire devoured the Nasaco building, and by the following morning, the edifice was in ashes with palls of black smoke hovering across the Dar es Salaam skyline! Sheaves of paper work were savagely consumed by the unexplained fire accident. The loss was colossal.

So we had to relocate to an office on the Mikocheni TanPack premises, formerly a subsidiary of the IPP Group. Some months later, we shifted again to an office housed in the nearby Tanzania Kalamu premises, another IPP Group subsidiary.

Another few months later, we moved again - into a newly furnished building that to this day houses the ITV and Radio One offices.

It was from these offices that we at last produced the first issue of The Guardian, over 13 months after we had landed formal employment. Ironically, although initially it was The Guardian that was scheduled to roll out first, it was Nipashe that actually did so!

Well, that is a different story. Before the soft launch of Nipashe and later The Guardian, we had spent about seven months honing our computer literacy skills; experimenting with desktop editing and graphics design (formerly page making), improving our proficiency in English, and learning to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each team member.

A year later, the migration cycle was brought to an end as we shifted into the current premises – a complex directly opposite the Radio One and ITV offices in which sits The Guardian and Nipashe newsroom, printing press, etc.
Members of editorial staff

The inadequacy of many original members of The Guardian editorial staff, specifically journalists (reporters) and editors, was a massive challenge.

Although most of the staffers were university graduates - with a few diploma holders - the general standard of English language copy submitted for a grossly understaffed subs’ desk to try to straighten out was extremely low - hugely influenced by our Kiswahili culture.

The sub-editors’ desk – the fulcrum of any successful newspaper - had just two members to begin with, including the chief sub who also had the dual responsibility of serving as a link between the top editorial managers and the semi-autonomous editorial desks; namely sports, vibe (features), news, investigative, political and business (desks).

Simply put, they found themselves literally overwhelmed.

To alleviate this problem, two copy editors from Britain were hired to prop up the subs desk, mainly because they were native English speakers. They joined another Scot who had been ‘poached’ from a private television station in Nairobi (KTN) to, among other things, assist in the editing of Kiswahili-influenced English-written news stories.

Since this trio was native English speakers, it was anticipated that their presence would be valuable, and The Guardian’s news content would improve.

But the opposite was true, and it has been proven time and again that mother-tongue proficiency does not automatically make someone a good editor. In my view, the presence of the three Britons in our newsroom did not prove justifiable.

Indeed, after some weeks they even declined to continue performing copy editing tasks. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I presume their decision was caused by one funny incident.

One evening, a young local reporter on the police beat filed a story in which police officers had arrested an old woman who had been spotted by neighbours behaving strangely in a nearby banana plantation while naked in the middle of the night.

A police spokesman later gave a Kiswahili-language briefing on the incident to the media, saying verbatim: “Mwanamke mmoja bi kizee anashikiliwa (na polisi) baada ya kukutwa anakata kiuno kwenye shamba la migomba akiwa uchi eneo la Mabibo, mjini Dar es Salaam.”

Properly translated into English, this should have read: “Police have arrested an old woman after neighbours spotted her performing ‘waist jigs’ last night while naked in a banana plantation at Mabibo in Dar es Salaam.”

But in his submitted copy, the young reporter - whose English had some Kiswahili influence - literally wrote: “An old woman was caught by the police ‘cutting’ her waist in a Mabibo banana plantation, Dar es Salaam, last night.”

Not surprisingly, the Scottish editor handling the copy - a native English speaker without Kiswahili cultural background - did not grasp the meaning of the statement, and approached me for clarification.

Instead, I teasingly told him it was his task to improve the raw copy submitted by local journalists to whom English was not a native language. Visibly upset, the Scot literally flung the raw copy into the air and left. But when I narrated the incident to my fellow (local) journalists, they roared in deafening laughter and spontaneous jeers.

Presumably, the Scot and his fellow countrymen just couldn’t stomach the jeers! Thereafter, the trio never reported to my desk again to take copy editing assignments. They later argued that our kind of English was irredeemably incomprehensible! Later, the three expatriates opted for junior roles in the graphics design section, but immense harm had already been done. Some weeks later, they quit.

Selection of Page One material

This was another area of contention especially during the early days of The Guardian. The gentleman from KTN, who would sometimes chair the evening editorial meetings, often engaged the managing editor in a war of words when it came to selecting front page news stories and other content.

Intermittent differences of opinions would ensue, some attaining alarming levels. In some cases, I was directed to give the Britons the benefit of doubt. However, during regular morning evaluation meetings, I was on the receiving end of criticism by both reporters and subs.

I recall an incident in which the maiden issue of The Guardian ran a lead story on civil violence in Chechnya, Russia, in which members of the Muslim minority were said to have waged a war of secession from the central government in Moscow.

During the morning meeting, some staffers demanded to know the criteria used in using a Chechnya story as the ‘splash’ in a Tanzanian newspaper. In such cases, I usually had the huge task of drawing my line of defence while trying to calm down enraged members of staff.

But not a single foreigner served on The Guardian editorial team thereafter, which I found a blessing in disguise as it afforded locals greater room to prove their worth.

Myth about native English speakers

By the way, who said all native English speakers can make good editors in African newsrooms? To be honest, at least the two Britons confessed that neither had ever seen the inside of a school of journalism before joining The Guardian. Therefore, suggesting that practically any native English speaker can make a good journalist or editor in Africa would be seriously flawed, disastrously resource-sapping and terribly de-motivating.

Journalism is a profession and English – and any language for that matter – is just a medium of communication and tool of trade.

Let me illustrate. In 1995, I was privileged to attend a short course on the roles of the managing editor. The course, sponsored by the Commonwealth Press Union (CPU), was held in the newsroom of the Herald newspaper in Harare, Zimbabwe, which had seen a drastic drop in sales after the mass departure of its journalists to join emerging, vibrant and exciting private dailies such as the Independent and Daily News. To try to offset this, the Herald publishers introduced a weekly vernacular paper called Kwayedza, in anticipation that since the ethnic Shona or Mashona dialect was widely spoken by most native Zimbabweans, such a paper would be a definite hit.

It never happened. Instead of being an asset, Kwayedza turned into a burden. Why? This was a paper published in vernacular Mashona, which is spoken by almost all Zimbabweans. But despite this, the Kwayedza editorial team composed of trained and lay media people couldn’t deliver in terms of increased sales to keep the Herald buoyant in the market it had dominated since its inception in 1892 as the Rhodesian Herald.

Here in Tanzania, during the struggle for independence, some educated gentlemen from present-day Kagera Region – without any journalism background – embarked on the publication of a Kihaya vernacular weekly, Bukya na Gandi. As it happened, the paper folded long before former Prime Minister Rashidi Mfaume Kawawa declared Kiswahili as the national language in 1971.

On the other hand, the success story of South Africa’s Beeld daily, which is edited and published by indigenous journalists and Afrikaans speakers, hinges on its adherence to journalism as a profession. While Beeld is basically a class paper - the affluent minority Afrikaners of South Africa - The Guardian doesn’t fall into that social stratum.

Therefore, the assumption that to hire native English speakers to edit and publish English newspapers in Africa and beyond will improve sales and readership could be a mere fallacy.

Printing and publishing facilities
At the time of the launch of The Guardian, newspaper printing in Tanzania was based on roller-blanket ink technology. Therefore, newspapers had no colour at all, or had a mixture of spot colour and something I don’t know what. The

publishers of The Guardian gunned for full colour.
As a result, the printing of the paper shuttled between the government-run Printpak along Azikiwe Street and the National Printing Corporation (or Kiuta) along Pugu (now Nyerere) Road (both in Dar es Salaam). After the paper had gone to bed, the chief sub would take the aluminium plates to a printer, which would be either Printpak or Kiuta, and this would prove horrendously tasking.

Normally, printing could drag on until 5 a.m.! Thereafter, I had to rush back to the newsroom for regular morning postmortem meetings. After the meetings, I would dash back home for a hurriedly taken bath or quick snap, before shooting back to the newsroom!

I can painfully recall how I missed the comfort of my bed and the company of my young family. It was a traumatic experience, when my wife eloped accusing me of infidelity and eventually our marriage collapsed.
Political influence

Another challenge, formidable by its very nature, came in the form of handling readers’ complaints, especially from ‘influential’ politicians. In my view, I think there was naivety in handling such complaints by The Guardian - especially when the disputed story or report appeared on its front page. The irony was things were at peace when a similar report was carried on the front page of our Kiswahili daily Nipashe.

However, the problem was that when such a row occurred, the chief sub became the whipping boy. One needs a cool head to absorb shocks attached to the position of chief sub!

Here are a few incidents which almost ruined my job particularly after I published two headlines – one strongly disputed by a former vice president, and another by a senior cabinet minister, both of them being presidential aspirants in the 1995 (‘first’) multi-party election in Tanzania.

In the first instance, I opted for journalese on the nickname of the ex-vice president, my aim being to give life and add taste to the story. The disputed front page headline ran ‘‘Master of the Tide’ swept aside’, (meaning the ‘master of the tide’ had been unceremoniously eliminated in the presidential nominations race by his party. After the elimination, I wrote a screamer-headline, citing his official name as a kicker, and ‘’Master of Tide’ swept aside’ as a second line headline.

The politician was not amused, and strongly demanded that I be summarily dismissed. Fortunately, my bosses (the editor and publisher) stood in my defence.

A few days later, The Guardian and I were again on the firing line, this time targeted by a senior cabinet minister whom some local university students had claimed was unfit to run for the presidency because of his ‘disastrous failures’ as a minister responsible for higher education. My headline, which again cited cabinet a minister’s name, failed the presidency’s test.

The politician bayed for blood, demanding an immediate retraction of the story or The Guardian would face court action for criminal libel. Again, I survived the ‘ordeal’. Ironically, the same politician went on to win the presidency!
For The Guardian, two decades down the line, I hope such naivety in the handling of complaints by politicians is now history.

Maturity and professionalism should have become the name of the game by now. Although I am no longer a member of the editorial team, I sincerely hope that I will be among those lucky enough to also be around when the paper hits 40 years old! I wish you a prosperous future, The Guardian. All the best!

• Long-serving media practitioner Lucas Owen Mnubi was the founding “Chief Midwife” (read Chief Sub-editor) of The Guardian. He is now engaged in specialised media consultancy.

Contact: [email protected].