Daily Observer publisher and managing director Kenneth Y. Best yesterday paid a courtesy visit to newly assigned European Union Ambassador, Madam Tiina Intellmann.
The invitation extended to Mr. Best by the Ambassador allowed the two to share views on the media landscape of Liberia.
Mr. Best, reacting to some concerns raised by Ambassador Intelmann, informed her about the level of newspaper readership as compared to radio listeners.
Accompanied by the Observer’s Diplomatic Correspondent, Joaquin Sendolo, Mr. Best told the Ambassador that Liberians and foreign residents receive news and information mostly from radio stations in the greater Monrovia area and around the country. There are over 35 radio stations in Montserrado County alone, where the capital, Monrovia, is situated.
In her Annual Message to the Legislature and the Nation yesterday afternoon, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said there were overall 80 radio stations in the country. These include community and other radio stations in all the 15 counties.
In addition to radio, he said, many Liberians also get their news from the Internet, where quite a few of the country’s online newspaper editions can be accessed.
The Ambassador was curious to know how many Liberians have access to the Internet. She seemed surprised to learn that far more people have this access than can be imagined. Why? Yes, Mr. Best told her, the average man on the street may have no access to a computer, but many cell phones today easily access the Internet, and tens of thousands of men, women and children can be seen anytime of the day or night with cell phones to their ears.
In the late 1980s and until the war the Daily Observer alone had a daily circulation of between 15,000 to 18,000. The newspaper suspended circulation in June 1990, when the war intensified and it became almost impossible to do any kind of sustained business.
Since its reappearance in 2005 the newspaper, like all the others, has been struggling to increase circulation, but this has been difficult for many reasons. Foremost among them is that even though Monrovia, the capital, is overcrowded, most of the people on the streets can neither read nor write, so they don’t buy newspapers. Secondly, circulation up country has been seriously hampered by bad roads. He said unlike the 1980s when transportation easily facilitated getting the papers into the interior, the road conditions have restricted not only newspaper circulation, but even the movement of food and other goods.
The Ambassador asked about advertising which, she reckoned, was the main source of newspaper revenues. This is somehow true, Mr. Best replied, though many customers take so long to pay their bills, and some do not pay at all, leaving most newspapers with huge receivables and serious difficulties purchasing supplies, such as newsprint, offset plates, chemicals and managing the high expenditure on fuel and maintenance for their generators. There is also, of course, the challenge of paying salaries and wages.
He said government is the biggest advertiser, but was also for several years the biggest debtor to Daily Observer and other newspapers.
In addition to news and information obtained from radio, Mr. Best said, there are scores of provocative and highly popular talk shows, many of which test the limits of free speech and often go overboard, sometimes negatively affecting even the nation’s President.
Ambassador Intelmann then asked Mr. Best how he came into journalism. The Observer publisher said he had studied Agriculture both at the Booker Washington Institute (BWI) and at Cuttington College and Divinity School (now Cuttington University). But all through high school and college he found himself writing for and publishing newspapers and magazines. He graduated from Cuttington with a degree in English and Political Science, not knowing what he wanted to be. But he got a job at the University of Liberia the very next day after graduation, December 3, 1963 when he was appointed Assistant to the Dean of Liberal Arts at the University of Liberia. For reasons Mr. Best said he could not understand, the Dean, Dr. Richard Bond, from Cornell University, never made a single correction on any draft Best presented to him. His constant advice was, “Go type it; I will sign it.” After two weeks Best stopped submitting drafts. A month later Dr. Bond told Mr. Best, “I will find a fellowship for you to go to Cornell University to study Political Science and return and teach at this university.” But young Best promptly replied, “Thank you, Dr. Bond, but I don’t think teaching is what I want to do with the rest of my life.” He had the same answer for repeated fellowship offers from Dr. Bond, and was finally told, “Whenever you make up your mind I will find a fellowship for you to go to Cornell, study Political Science and return and teach at this university.”
In March 1964 Mr. Best was called to the Department of Information and Cultural Affairs by the boss, Secretary E. Reginald Townsend, and told, “The President says I must employ you.”
“Which President?” Best asked.
“How many Presidents of Liberia do you know?”
“Oh, you mean President Tubman?”
“I thought you knew that.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You never asked him for a job?”
Best replied “No, Sir.”
Mr. Townsend became dumfounded and cast his eyes to the ceiling. He then asked, “You haven’t talked with the President recently?”
Mr. Best then narrated how on his graduation day, December 2, 1963, he had spotted the President on campus and later presented to him two copies of the Cuttington Review, Best’s last edition as editor.
When the Observer publisher finished telling the story and Mr. Townsend’s response, Best asked Ambassador Intelmann, “Did I take myself into journalism?”
“No,” she replied. “It was destiny.”
The Ambassador, in conclusion, said she was glad meeting a Liberian media representative and was going back to Europe to be back in February at which time she would invite the media to a luncheon to fully acquaint herself with the various institutions, their issues and the reporters covering the EU.