In May 2015, frustrated by the coverage he and his administration were getting in the press, President Uhuru Kenyatta pooh poohed newspapers as “only good for wrapping meat”.
Many people were not too pleased, but the editors at Nation Media Group were able to see the funny side, naming their internal football team “The Meat Wrappers”. If I ever got to write a book or make a film about the trials and tribulations of the press, I too would title it “The Meat Wrappers.”
In this coronavirus period, newspapers, like several other businesses, have taken a big punch to the face, reeling from the disruption of distribution networks, and vanishing advertising. Yet, at the same time, the value of its second life as a meat wrapper, versatile packaging material, and fire starter, has gone up. About two months ago, something unusual happened in our neighbourhood. When the gate bell rung and we went to look, there would be a masked, nearly-elegant, middle-aged woman, asking if we had “old” newspapers to sell. I started seeing several of them in the area. Also, on an attentive walkabout around the place, one could see that unlike past times, there were no newspapers in the garbage residents put outside their gates for collection.
As a journalist, it is heartwarming to see, for the first time in years, someone chasing after a newspaper, even if it’s not to read it. For the longest time, it has been the other way around. If you sell newspapers, you have to pamper and bribe readers with promotions, prizes, colourful designs and photos, and exaggerated promises of news scoops of the century.
The combination of disrupted physical distribution, and the increased digital dependency spawned by the pandemic, have brought on a shortage of old newspapers. Likely, it is now too precious to be used for wrapping meat, tomatoes, or maandazi.
This search for old newspapers tells us an interesting story about its new life, often at the hands of the same digital forces that are battering its fortunes. As more and more people migrate online, the digital discourse, or more accurately digital political combat, has got more heated. A popular, and very lethal, form of evidence (Ugandans call it bwino – ink) is showing a page of an old newspaper to show that a politician is being a hypocrite; to compare the state of a nation in the past and today; or to catch out a liar. Nothing does it like a photo of a newspaper page with a politician calling a rival a monster and a curse on the land, against the latest of him describing the same person as God’s gift to the country and a great statesman, after they have kissed and made up. Nothing.
Another effective use is to show how little things have changed. A photo of a news story from 1970, of some hot head of the day denouncing corruption, and one from 50 years later with another doing exactly the same thing, sums up the endurance of crooked government in ways few other things can.
Using newspapers pages to demonstrate great prophetic abilities is also a popular vehicle. A headline from 1969 warning that allowing some political miscreants to take power, would ruin the country, looks delicious used 50 years later, when the republic has been eaten to the bone and is it at war with itself.
Another much-loved approach, to take the front pages of Daily Nation, The Standard, The Star, The People of the same day and put them side by side to show which one of them is being an idiot or might have been “bought”, leading with a sex scandal, when all the rest are screaming with a revelation from the Auditor General that a top government official and his “tenderpreneur” buddy stole Ksh5 billion.
It is also often used to illustrate national consensus on some grave situation or an unfolding drama with far reaching possibilities. When you go on social media and see all the days front pages lined up, declaring that “Kenya is Broke”, you know someone in power is guilty of bad housekeeping. And when they all shout that “Uhuru gloves off, takes war to Ruto”, you know that President Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, are not about to appear in matching shirts and ties any day soon.
The archival value of newspapers in photo form, driven in part by digital conversation formats, has thus risen sharply. It has become an important visual historical alibi, showing (not telling) younger generations who don’t have the attention to read an encyclopedia, the past, how much it is still part of the present, crushed hopes, and small victories won. Unfortunately, newspapers haven’t yet found a way to cash in on this new premium.
We can say then that the ladies who desperately seek old newspapers, tell us that this once great business has become like a Shakespearean tragedy. You know; the one where people fall in love and never get to marry – or die trying to.