Throughout our time as publishers, we have left the talking to our editors. But as we enter our 50th year, we feel it is important to put into context what this anniversary means to us as a Group – as well as take the opportunity to explain to you where we stand and what we stand for. And I should start by stating that you, our dear readers, have always been at the centre of all our endeavours.
They say a week is a long time in politics and that 50 is the new 30. Whichever way you look at time and age, I can assure you that in African publishing 50 years is more than a lifetime. Anybody who has been in this field will tell you that to survive 50 years in publishing is no mean feat anywhere. To have been able to do so in African publishing has needed more than determination and sound management – it has also required “someone up there” to like us.
It has been a journey we feel honoured to have been able to undertake and an achievement we can justifiably be proud of. But this success also increases the weight of responsibility we feel to both sustain the title and continue to serve our beloved Africa.
Over the past half century, as a Group, we have lived through the best and worst of times. Today, Africa is the talk of the world and everyone wants a slice of the action. It has not always been so.
As a sign of the health of Africa, the media space on the continent is as vibrant as I’ve known it. It is also more diverse and a welcome addition to our traditional role as purveyors of “grey matter”. We say, the more the merrier – especially as Africa still has the lowest rate of reading matter per capita of population.
Looking back, what we can be most proud of at New African is that when all others had given up hope on our cherished continent, we persevered with our duty to tell the African story and to give Africa and Africans a voice. We swam against the current when it was much easier to go with it. Many doubted our sanity – but we never lost confidence that one day, mighty Africa would rise again. By the grace of the Almighty and through its own efforts, it has.
I cannot claim any credit for this; I came into the business 13 years ago when everything had already been built. My responsibility was to ensure that the train remained on the tracks and to expand our areas of activity.
I therefore take the opportunity to thank the editors, past and present, and our dedicated writers and contributors in Africa and further afield who month after month, have diligently supplied us with diverse and unique stories, and who have often done so more as a labour of love than as a road to riches. I cannot thank them enough for their sterling work.
We are featuring cover stories from the past (see page 70) and will be doing so all year long. I think you will agree that they still make for a cracking read. Much of the context is timeless in so many ways, and not only because some of the issues that we were discussing then are still relevant today, sadly so!
This year, we went through the long and laborious task of digitising all our back issues which can be accessed online through our digital partners Exact Editions (www.exacteditions.com).
What is New African?
What we know today as New African magazine became part of the IC Publications stable in January 1977. Prior to that it was called African Development, a monthly publication that had been launched in October 1966 by British Africanists and aimed very much at the expatriate community and Africa-watchers who wanted to keep abreast of what was happening back in Africa or were seeking to do business on the continent. I am told the first two editors at the time had never travelled to Africa in their lives!
The content was almost entirely on economic and business issues. And the annual subscription price was £220, which in today’s money would be £1,500! Our cover price today is £4 and across Africa in general, less than $3 (more on that in a minute).
When we took over the magazine in 1977, we changed its title to New African Development and added a new dimension with more current affairs and human interest angles. The editorial and contributor team was also “Africanised”. Both of these changes were greeted with enthusiasm by our readers and resulted in a swift rise in circulation. In May 1978, the magazine dropped Development from its title and was renamed simply as New African.
The editor-in-chief at the time, Peter Enahoro, recalls a magazine respected for its journalistic impartiality, truthfulness and clear presentation of the facts. His words in his editorial back in May 1978 ring true today as they did then: ‘the magazine we aim at is a publication that insists both on editorial excellence and professional integrity. In this way New African can truly live up to its title, serving Africa and marching in step with the new African who is not only the decision-maker of today but also the decision-maker of tomorrow.’
As publishers, both myself and my father, Afif, before me have always chosen to provide editorial freedom. There was, and still is, one caveat for our editors: remain neutral and don’t use your position to promote or pursue biased interests of any government or other group of interests. We are here to serve Africa and to defend Africa’s interests.
The big change
But it was never plain sailing and our fortunes mirrored the roller-coaster ride that the continent itself underwent. There were internal changes to reflect the external ones and a number of new staff with fresh outlooks joined us. Some moved on and some stayed the course to carve out their own niches in the African media pantheon. The names of Alan Rake, who worked on the magazine for over 30 years before retiring in 1999, and of course Anver Versi, a naturally gifted writer and one of Africa’s most talented journalists who later moved on to become the long-standing editor of African Business, spring to mind.
In 1999, the magazine went through another evolution. Baffour Ankomah, who many of you will know through his inimitable Beefs, transformed the magazine and reinforced its slant.
Africa was still suffering from the ills of the Cold War that had split and ravaged the continent as well as the structural adjustments that had brought some economies to their knees.
Africa’s story was being told by others; the continent had lost its voice. With a phalanx of strong writers by his side, Ankomah worked to inject a feeling of being positive and confident in the African discourse.
The drive was to encourage us as Africans to start reasserting ourselves and our thinking and to stop imitating others. “We were tired,” he wrote not long ago, “of being pushed around by people who were no better than us.”
He brought a unique dimension to the magazine, often taking a contrarian view to that which was prevailing and which, in time turned out to be the correct one more often than not. He was and is a true pan-African and succeeded in generating great debate over serious issues. This is something we will continue to do. New African will continue to plough its own furrow, as long as we are convinced of the correctness of our views. Our independence of thought and spirit is non-negotiable.
Since his return to the homeland, his deputy and mentee Regina Jere, who has a great nose for a story and for knowing what truly resonates with readers, has overseen some of our best issues to date. The narrative has changed, the context has evolved and there is a need to adjust our discourse to reflect this new context.
We have managed to survive the onslaught of the web and a plethora of digital and other media by offering original content. But we know there is so much more we can and need to do, across all our platforms, print and digital. We need to fine-tune and tailor the content to different audiences but with the same ultimate objective: to shape the African agenda and to bring original content from an African perspective.
That is central to what we do. Only we can tell our story, and only we can shape our destiny. We need to think for ourselves and define our own solutions. New African intends to be part of that process and we want to firmly establish ourselves as a thought-leader on the continent, and in this era of constant news and information, make sense of that information to give insights and knowledge.
Today, if our group has managed to survive the highs and lows of publishing it is because we have managed to diversify our activities and our revenues. We are now a media and communications group: publishing magazines; producing digital content; organising events; we now have a communications and advisory arm; and there are plans to expand into other areas.
But our readers should not worry – every part is ring-fenced to protect our main asset which is the strength and editorial integrity of our magazines. And our publishing (be it print or digital) will remain central to what we do.
Now to the issue of price. We have had to increase the price of our magazine this month in a number of our markets across Africa. We have always believed in producing a magazine that could be read by a wider audience rather than simply by a small elite. As such we have always kept the magazine at approximately $3.
Even then, given print, freight and distribution costs, we have been losing money on every copy sold. This was further exacerbated as governments have increased duties and other taxes on printed matter and “imported” goods. And given devaluations in the past 18 months we have been forced to increase our prices to bring them to par. Not something we do lightly.
This is because we understand that over these 50 years (and 39 years since the magazine has been under the ownership of this Group), we have a duty to our readers and to the African continent. Both are our raison d’être.
It has always been an exciting time to cover the continent, and today is as exciting a time as ever. We may all be in for a little bumpy ride after a decade of exuberance, but New African will always be by Africa’s side.
You can rest assured that as we strengthen our editorial teams across all our platforms, we will endeavour, as we have always done, to bring you the sharpest analysis, original thinking and a different perspective on matters African.
So here’s to another 50 years, and here’s to you, our loyal readers and supporters.