Turning 20, but we won’t be partying!

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Entrepreneurial trio ... AMH chairman Trevor Ncube (centre) with Zimbabwe Independent’s other founders Clive Murphy (left) and Clive Wilson in May 1996.

“Those who judge us merely by the heights we achieved don’t remember the depths from which we started.” — Kwame Nkrumah.

Trevor Ncube

Entrepreneurial trio ... AMH chairman Trevor Ncube (centre) with Zimbabwe Independent’s other founders Clive Murphy (left) and Clive Wilson in May 1996.

Entrepreneurial trio … AMH chairman Trevor Ncube (centre) with Zimbabwe Independent’s other founders Clive Murphy (left) and Clive Wilson in May 1996.

A 20th anniversary in the life of a person or an organisation is a big deal under any circumstances. Ordinarily you pull out all the stops to throw the mother of all parties, the joy palpable everywhere. Two decades give you a right to dance the night away. But as the weekly Zimbabwe Independent (Zimind) turns 20 we won’t be partying. And why should we when the economy is in such a bad shape. We are struggling like everyone else. We simply can’t afford a birthday party. Perhaps a small braai or barbecue would do.

It is telling that when we launched the Zimind on May 10, 1996 the country and the economy was in a robust, healthy state. We could hold our heads high, certain that the Zimbabwean economy would go from strength to strength. Given the circumstances at the time, it was thus unsurprising that on the eve of the launch of the Zimind we had a huge party as we waited for the first copies of the paper to roll out of the printing press.

Our first print order was for 10 000 copies which were sold out by midday. We had secured six to 12 months advertising contracts from blue chip clients. Clearly excited readers had taken out long term individual and corporate subscriptions for a publication they had not yet even seen. No doubt one of the reasons was because the economy was on such a good footing. But another reason was that the public trusted the management and the editorial team.

For me the launch of this new publication was an important personal milestone. Earlier that year, in February I had been fired by Elias Rusike as the editor-in-chief of the Financial Gazette. Turning calamity into opportunity, I went into business with Sarah Thompson, Clive Murphy and Clive Wilson. I headed an “A List” editorial team, which included Iden Wetherell, Barnabas Thondlana, Sunsleey Chamunorwa and Basildon Peta. Later on our team was joined by Vincent Kahiya, who is now Alpha Media Holdings’ managing director, and others.

I am truly proud of the number of stories in which the Zimind took the lead. For the record, the Zimind broke many of the big stories of the day. These include Grace Mugabe’s new Borrowdale mansion which we dubbed Gracelands. We also broke the story on the heart-breaking Zimbabwe National Army casualties in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These were just some of the top stories. But there were many more. We earned a reputation as the leading investigative paper in the country. For this we attracted the anger of the ruling party and its supporters. Our colleagues were subsequently harassed, intimidated and detained for simply doing their work. Their crime was doing journalism.

We made a profit in the first month and I received my first dividend cheque after only six months in business. From an initial stake of 2,5% in 1996, I eventually owned 100% of the business after five years in 2001, funded from bank loans and dividend payments.

Profits from the Zimind funded the establishment of The Sunday Standard and the purchase of Munn Marketing, among other investments I made.

Just to give you a sense of the health of the economy and our own success, we were doing so well that we could afford to pay profit share at financial year-end to all staff in addition to annual bonuses. Later I sold 39% of the business to the Media Loan Investment Fund in 2009 to help fund the purchase of a printing press and the establishment of NewsDay, our national daily in 2010.

And in June 2013 we launched Southern Eye, a daily for the southern part of the country. This was an important moment for us because diversity in news coverage is an important value in our organisation.

From an initial staff establishment of 13 people and one newspaper we grew to over 400 employees and four newspapers in 14 years in Zimbabwe. Sadly, this happy story started turning bad in 2013 as the economy started to tank. We were forced to retrench staff and right-size all across the businesses.

Instead of being a stand-alone publication, we turned Southern Eye into a NewsDay insert with an online presence.

To reduce costs and embrace technology we converged the newsroom into one feeding all the titles. This is obviously an arrangement that has been adopted by other news organisations as a way of dealing with a fast-changing news and media environment.

We have parted with many dear colleagues and now sit with a staff establishment of just below 200. Retrenchments and contract terminations are painful things and invariably poison the working environment. Having been fired before I know too well the pain of losing a source of income and the past three years have been incredibly traumatic to me.

When we launched the Independent, the internet was a new thing and I am embarrassed to say I couldn’t even use a typewriter. We thought we were smart when we put all our content online soon thereafter. This turned out to be an industry-wide error from which we are all slowly retreating. It is incredible to think that there was no social media to talk about. And it is of course also difficult to think that there were no mobile phones in Zimbabwe at the time.

The current technological revolution has disrupted our operations over the past two decades. We have embraced the opportunities that technology presents and this week the launch of our content on Facebook Instant articles represents our use of technology. We continue to learn and grow under very difficult economic and political circumstances.

Our passion remains focused on playing a role as a catalyst for the spread of ideas in the development of a prosperous, accountable and tolerant democracy in Zimbabwe. It is our wish to see Zimbabwe become a country in which there is a free, dynamic exchange of diverse and robust ideas.

But for now, Zimbabwe is a broken society; even though we still dream of a better future. A future in which media freedom and freedom of speech protected by the constitution will be respected. A future where the interests of the citizens will rank higher than those of the political elite. We dream of a society free from the debilitating effects of corruption and bad governance.

We have made many mistakes over the past two decades, but we have learnt from them. We look forward to another 20 years; I will be 74 then, but still full of the same sense of optimism and hope that I had when 20 years ago we launched Zimind. But for now it is time to reflect with pride on the momentous events and changes that we have chronicled on our pages.

Ncube is Alpha Media Holdings chairman and deputy executive chair of Mail & Guardian in South Africa

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