About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Learning from the market

FDC via Monitor and New Vision

How the competition between Monitor and New Vision has important lessons for Besigye’s next presidential election
I hope FDC takes the critical lesson from this story because many FDC officials downplay the need for organisational infrastructure to win, especially, presidential elections. They believe all they need is passionate voters. This is simply wrong. To win, passion is important; but is not sufficient.

I use The Monitor and New Vision fight between 1996 and 2006 over who should be the market leader in Uganda’s English daily newspaper market to illustrate.
I was an investigative reporter at Monitor. We were passionate. We defended democracy, exposed corruption and human rights abuses. We braved jail and intimidation from the state. Our strap-line: “The Paper That Builds The Nation” expressed our self-image. Our readers were equally passionate and committed to the newspaper because of its values.

But by 2001, New Vision was selling 34,000 copies daily while Monitor was selling 21,000. We invented many reasons to explain our poor performance – like accusing New Vision CEO, William Pike, of playing dirty tricks. We denigrated New Vision as a “government run newspaper.” Yet its sales kept steady or growing while Monitor’s sales kept shrinking. By end of 2003, Monitor was technically bankrupt. Our passionate readers could not save us from collapse. Why were Ugandan readers pushing us into bankruptcy while buying a newspaper that did not advance the values our country needed?

Pike, meanwhile, possibly understood that New Vision – as a state-owned newspaper – could never beat Monitor on independence and boldness. He also figured that not all readers are as passionate about such emotive issues of liberty, freedom, accountability and human rights. He also possibly did what in modern business strategy is called `the strategic canvas’. He strengthened New Vision’s coverage of functional things like sports news, exchange rates, community news, jobs, gossip (remember Have You Heard?) and features on health and environment.

William Pike and Bukedde editors discuss with newspaper designer David Billington from London. Pike focused on the itty-bitty teeny-tiny things.
William Pike and Bukedde editors discuss with newspaper designer David Billington from London. Pike focused on the itty-bitty teeny-tiny things. NEW VISION PHOTO
Beyond content, Pike did what Robert Waterman and Tom Peters in their best selling book, `In Search of Excellence’ called the “itty-bitty teeny-tiny” things that grow customer loyalty. He improved New Vision’s copy layout and design and print quality. He ensured that by 6am the newspaper was in every major town in Uganda from Arua to Busia, Kisoro to Soroti. He paid (we would say “bribed”) vendors to display New Vision and placed its headlines on street light poles.

Monitor was weak in all these areas. We would arrive in towns like Kabale at 3pm when readers have made their newspaper purchases and gone home. Our design and layout was poor, our printing quality horrible. Our sense of self-righteousness could not compensate for our weaknesses. It is not that Monitor was wrong to stand for democracy, accountability and liberty. We did not realise that passion was necessary but not sufficient to achieve market leadership.

Our missionary attitude created a problem in how we approached the market. It led us to misunderstand the diverse interests of readers. We held onto our most committed readers who passionately cared for the values we stood for. But we lost those readers who were less passionate.
We did not appreciate that many readers may not be interested in the things we were passionate about. We boxed ourselves in a small albeit highly passionate market segment and left Pike to reap the rest.
I learnt this lesson through constant discussions with Conrad Nkutu, who had worked with Pike to beat us. He caused me to abandon my moralistic attitude towards New Vision and began to think seriously about the hard realities of market competition. In 2004, Nation Media Group, owners of Monitor, advertised the job of CEO of Nation Newspapers. I called Conrad Nkutu who was working at the Standard in Nairobi and convinced him to apply. I told him Nation will not give him the job in Nairobi but will offer him Monitor instead. When Conrad came to Monitor, he upheld our independence and boldness. But we fixed many of the itty-bitty teeny-tiny things. By the time I left for Stanford in July 2006, Monitor had overtaken New Vision as our nation’s leading daily.

This story has important lessons for FDC. Many FDC officials believe they occupy a high moral ground and the country is with them. This is simply not true. The section of the country that is against Museveni could be passionate about FDC. Not all of them are.  It is simply not possible for FDC to win, especially presidential elections, if they do not have grassroots organisational infrastructure. Passion is important. But it is not sufficient.

To win an election, FDC will need to build capacity to field a candidate in each and every electoral contest from the district, to the constituency, sub county, parish down to the village – or at least in 80 percent of the contested positions. In the last election FDC contested 201 out of 290 constituencies, 61 out of 112 women district MP, 43 out of 112 district chairmen, 560 out of 1503 LC3 chairperson positions. The story gets worse the lower one goes. So NRM contested 10,656 positions across the country unopposed.

This greatly undermined Kizza Besigye’s chances of success. The best way to beat Museveni was to increase voter turnout. Passion did that – by 10% from 58% in 2011 to 68% in 2016. And Besigye profited greatly from this. Had voter turnout reached 85%, President Yoweri Museveni’s vote rigging machinery would have been overwhelmed. But how do you increase voter turnout?

Without a grassroots campaign infrastructure, on voting day only your passionate supporters will show up. But not all your supporters are passionate. There is the woman who may be cooking at home, the man digging in his garden, the guy selling at his kiosk, the lady who has gone to collect firewood, the guy fetching water etc. Don’t take them for granted. All these people need a grassroots infrastructure to knock on their doors and get them out and vote.
Fielding candidates in every contested position connects your presidential candidate emotionally and functionally to voters. If you have a candidate for LC2, he has self-interest to rally many voters to go to the polling station and vote for him. But there is also the emotional part: his relatives, friends and in-laws will most likely turn up to vote for him in solidarity. There is a high chance that in both cases they will also vote for the presidential candidate of his party.
It was not passionately accusing Pike of dirty tricks that brought Monitor from bankruptcy to market leadership and profitability. It was in recognising our weaknesses and fixing them. I know many FDC supporters reading this will get angry and hurl insults and accusations at me. But that will never win Besigye (or any other FDC candidate) a presidential election. But fixing the itty-bitty teeny-tiny things like having candidates in every contested position will create great potential for them to succeed. Will they listen?
Since many FDC supporters are also admirers of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, here is advice from him.

“Our critics believed we stayed in power because we were hard on our opponents,” he wrote in his popular book, From Third World to First, The Singapore Story, “This is simplistic… We had learned from our toughest adversaries, the communists. Present-day opposition leaders go on walkabouts to decide where they will do well based on the way people respond to them at hawker centers, coffee shops, food courts and supermarkets and whether people accept the pamphlets they hand out. I have never believed this. From many unhappy encounters with my communist opponents, I learned that while overall sentiment and mood do matter, the crucial factors are organisational and institutional networks to muster support.”

FDC has talked big about the importance of institutions. Yet its behavior reflects an even worse disregard of the importance of institutions. The party has consistently sought to rely on an individual, Besigye, and the passion he evokes in his supporters to win presidential elections.

FDC has also exhibited an acute disregard to science, data and evidence to guide its strategies. It seems obvious, therefore, that if elected, Besigye would govern personalistically and from his gut feeling rather than institutionally and based on evidence.
 ** amwenda@independent.co.ug

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