As many try to navigate the new digital road, Nation Media Group looks to its past for guidance. The publisher’s print journey, which began in 1960 with the launch of the Daily Nation, has served as a roadmap for its more recent digital journey.
At the time the newspaper was launched, Kenyans lacked a voice and the media space was “mostly dominated by foreign press and sometimes a press that mostly spoke for the elite,” Churchill Otieno, head of development and learning for NMG, shared during the INMA Africa Media Summit on Thursday.
In giving a voice to the people, the Daily Nation found tremendous success and, within a decade, crossed a circulation threshold of 45,000 daily readers.
That growth gave the company the confidence to invest in a rotary press. And as Kenya went through turmoil in the 1980s, that press became critical in allowing the Daily Nation to continue raising its voice.
“The net effect of that was the trust that we built with audiences,” Otieno said. And that trust has become core to its overriding mission. The company continued building on the loyalty of its readers and, as the media space opened up in the late ‘90s, NMG took advantage of the changing climate and launched Nation TV, which also led to creating radio stations.
When the “reality of digital” appeared in the 2000s, the company knew it had to once again modify and expand its offerings —without losing its current audience.
“It became clear that there was no future unless we could find a business model that works in digital,” he said. Ultimately, though, the success of its digital channels have less to do with the product and more to do with a commitment to the audience.
Although Otieno said it takes good management to develop a thriving media company, “the reason we were able to develop audiences and downloads and be able to monetise off of them was essentially an internal policy that’s focused on the interest and hopes and aspirations” of the audience.
That provided a strong relationship with readers, which then gave NMG the luxury to experiment in the digital space with less fear of losing its audience: “It gave us the power to be able to try new things, to see what worked and see why some things didn’t work.”
It led to introducing chatbots, venturing into the food content space, and even launching a music label.
“There were many lessons to draw from and lots of opportunity to learn what audiences cared about,” he said.
At the same time, a critical theme was to stay true to loyal users.
“Sometimes the mad rush into the digital field can make you forget the users who are already in the building. But our key focus is — even as we experiment, even as we create a company to permit digital — we must make sure the legacy of our original users are properly served.”
To show just how committed it is to newspaper readers, NMG redesigned all its newspapers across the board to make sure they are current. At the same time, it made bold inroads into digital, including the launch of the digital product Nation Africa in August of this year.
“It became clear that the only way to chase our success is to disrupt ourselves. Nation Africa gives us a new ground to speak to the continent and explain the continent to the world, but also [explain] the world to the continent and explain it in a way that is relevant to the audience of Africa.”
The portal is designed to let NMG get to know its users better, something Otieno said gives journalists a way to better understand what issues to focus on: “We must cease looking at the audience in generalities and word harder to understand the audience a lot better.”
The formula of committing to readers first has worked well for NMG; today, that initial newsroom in Kenya has expanded to include 15 cities. Otieno said he only expects that number to continue growing and that determination for digital growth has led to a new company-wide promise.
“That promise puts the audience at the center,” he said. “It a promise that we are committed to and we are keen to see realised. Going forward, that becomes our constant northern star that will be guiding us on our digital journey for our mission — and for Africa.”