The paper made a profit for the first time in September 2009, Quarcoo says. He declines to reveal circulation numbers, but others in the company say it’s now above 20,000. Joe Otin of Synovate is more conservative, estimating 15,000. (Sales estimates for all the Kenyan papers vary widely, depending on whom you’re talking to: anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 for the Daily Nation, the country’s largest paper, and from 50,000 to 180,000 for the Standard, its closest competitor.) While the Nation and the Standard have Web sites, neither of which offers much beyond what’s in the printed version, Quarcoo says he sees no reason to start one for the Star unless he can find a way of making money on it.
Advertisers seem as certain as Quarcoo that newspapers still play a central role in the country. “Politics is all-consuming in Kenya,” says Michael Joseph, the CEO of Safaricom, the country’s largest mobile-phone company. And Kenyans, he says, “do read papers. Politics drives it.” Joseph, a native of South Africa, says Safaricom spends 35 percent of its advertising budget on print. Similarly, Thiagarajan Ramamurthy, the operations director of Nakumatt Holdings, the country’s largest supermarket chain, says his company spends about 40 percent of its ad budget on print. While Nakumatt is experimenting with online and mobile-phone advertising, he says, “Print advertising in this region will still remain a key plank as most consumers still prefer to read.”
Can this last? Can newspapers in Kenya defy worldwide trends and even prosper? Michael Joseph thinks not. Pointing to the success of Safaricom’s M-Pesa mobile banking service, which now has eight million Kenyan subscribers, he predicts that Kenyans will increasingly find new uses for their mobile phones, including streaming radio and accessing online news sites. Joe Otin of Synovate says that while “culture is working in favor of print, new technology is working in favor of online.”
But perhaps the experts are focusing too much on what’s happening in the rest of the world and not enough on what’s happening close to home. I remember a time in 2005, as Kenyans were about to vote on a proposed new constitution—as they will do again later this year—when everywhere I went I saw people intently reading free copies of the constitution that had been inserted in the major dailies. And I also remember the role that newspapers played in early 2008, when the country was being torn apart by violence after a highly suspect presidential election. At that moment, there was no legitimate government; the courts were regarded as fatally tainted by politics; only the country’s newspapers remained as a functioning and trusted national institution.
So perhaps those Busia residents sitting around in Stephen Obala’s house represent not the tail-end of an era but rather the vanguard of a new, more democratic one in which technology has a place but print newspapers continue to play a crucial role. Maybe Patrick Quarcoo’s grandmother knew something that the experts don’t. Whatever the case, American print journalists can take comfort from knowing that somewhere in the world, at least for now, print is still king.