By Joseph Burite
The five-story building which houses Kasangati Times newspaper is neither a hub of publishing nor a center of information dissemination. Located 13 kilometers north of Uganda’s capital, Kampala in Kasangati town, its basement is occupied by grocery and electronic shops along with mobile money agencies. As one climbs the stairs to the second floor, a food restaurant manifests in one corner, a hair salon in another, and on the opposite side is the newspaper’s five-square-foot office where Alex Musinguzi and Apollo Lumansi sit.
The two longtime friends are academics, the former a doctorate holder who teaches materials and textile engineering; the latter, a Master’s degree bearer who lectures entrepreneurship — both at Kyambogo University, one of Uganda’s largest tertiary education institutions. But since August 2021, they have ventured into the business of journalism, publishing Uganda’s first community newspaper, Kasangati Times.
“We are not journalists but I think we became journalists over time,” said Lumansi in an interview at the newspaper’s office. “As proprietors, we had to get equipped fully. I never knew how to collect news, I had to learn how to collect news and I had to insist on my model, purely community news,” he said.
For a profession with many canons, Kasangati Times’ peculiar approach to the trade broaches many ethical issues but nature hates a vacuum. If a community news gap couldn’t be filled by journalists, academia stepped-up. And so Kasangati Times was born, publishing as many as 29 bi-monthly editions at a decent price rate of UGX1000 (about USD$0.27).
How they did this is a tale of a craft that combines the use of simple smartphones and creative personnel. Having taken up the oversight of editorial work, Lumansi scoured local journalism schools for interns but found none that were interested in a writing apprenticeship with Kasangati Times. So he identified high schoolers from the community and sent them off to the field.
“We had like two guys who would collect. Actually many could not write so they could bring to us but we would also go and collect,” Lumansi explained. “We used the local people, these are boys maybe senior four, senior six so you would direct them on what to do than bring you information, then they give you audios and we write,” he added, joined by Musinguzi on the latter part, to sound like a chorus.
At one point they found a diploma holder who couldn’t write and another so inflexible he could only handle a single beat.
“You need to use few people to do a lot and we had two weeks to publish but you get a boy and you send him to a certain event – I used to send them to church for example the bishop has come, and the boy comes back with nothing to report about,” narrated Lumansi. “There is no story,” the boys would declare, according to Lumansi.
Faced with such challenges, the entrepreneurs drew on their own experience in academic writing and publishing. They then had an experienced editor from one of the national newspapers train them in basic news writing, an undertaking they flourished in with each writing about five pieces per edition, according to Lumansi.
“We studied the same course in textile engineering. It’s completely different from journalism but for us we are innovative,” said Musinguzi. “We said we have to push. We can write, yes. Because he can write, I can write so we looked at these media houses for them they report national news,” he said.
Even then, this was an idea Musinguzi picked out of Italy where he attained a master’s degree years ago and he recalled seeing zonal newspapers in the European country, something he had never seen back home in Uganda. “We said why don’t we start with Kasangati as our demonstration area when it picks then we cut across? We go to Wakiso, we go to Jinja, every other area in Uganda – we start there a community newspaper,” Musinguzi revealed.
By Musinguzi’s count, they made an investment of just about $5,000 in capital and that should have been enough to see them run all the way to sustainability had it not been for what the scholar believes was sabotage by their printing partner, a largely state-owned company with various media interests.
“The main impediment became the cost of printing and the competitor used it to their advantage. They knew they could squeeze us and get us out of the market,” Musinguzi said, adding “and I think they achieved their idea.” “So we said why don’t we now reorganise ourselves, we go online? We develop our online system very well then if we do printing, we print once a month. We were printing twice but now we print once in a month,” Musinguzi revealed. “Meaning someone who cannot go online can wait for a month to read our bulletin which has all the information for the month,” he said.
This new approach will require an investor to take up a stake. To this end, Musinguzi said they are drawing on experience to actively pursue partnerships. “People liked the paper but printing prices became an issue. So if we get an investor, we immediately start because our online platform is okay. What we need is just to gather news and gathering news is very easy,” he said.
Still, ventures like these only have a bleak future to contend with, according to Daniel Kazungu, a lecturer of media and mass communication at Kampala University.
“Community media can only depend entirely on adverts, otherwise people buying the paper is very difficult. They want to read the newspapers but they want you to give them for free,” Kazungu said in an interview in the eastern-Ugandan city of Jinja. “They like community media because it is very relevant to them but they want you to give it out freely,” he said.
“Another challenge is that media is very expensive to run so you have to have a constant income. So if you are to establish print media, you are supposed to have enough money to run for a whole year,” said Kazungu. “You must budget properly because even for people to trust you they must see you being consistent. They are not buying but they want to see you on the market,” he noted, adding, “At the moment, the future is actually bleak. When you combine all those factors, the poverty, the suspicions, it’s bleak. I think the only country where they have succeeded with community media is I think Nigeria on account of high disposable income and a high sense of people belonging to the communities.”
Back at Kasangati Times, Musinguzi has relied on another peculiar metric to inform his confidence in their newspaper model. A WhatsApp group he curated for the newspaper has seen no exits, five months since their last publication, for him, a sign that interest in the publication remains.
“This is a model, capturing Kasangati as the area; we are now in the lab demonstrating,” Musinguzi observed. “When you do an experiment it fails, you have to start afresh. So now we are in the lab when our results come out well in this Kasangati town council, now we shall go massively. But we are learning every other day,” he said.
The newspaper project is also intertwined with the two partners’ employment goals.
“At the university, we need to show community input to get promoted,” Musinguzi said. “I thought if we contributed to the area, we shall have contributed to our area of promotion and also our area where we stay,” he said, with a hint of determination.