The lamentations and gratitude of a newspaper entrepreneur
I, Mae Gene Best, am the proud co-founder of Liberian Observer Corporation (LOC) and its flagship, the Daily Observer newspaper. Kenneth and I are so grateful to God for His protection of and provision to us and our staff as a newspaper family. There is no rust on God’s back. What He has enabled us to do and endure over the past 40 years of our career leaves us lacking adequate words to thank Him. May our gratitude to Him find expression more in our deeds than our words.
Few things press me enough to put my business on blast, but things are now at the boiling point. On the eve of our 40th anniversary, the oldest surviving newspaper in Liberia can’t even host a decent celebration and I’m not talking champagne or the ‘black boys’ (Guiness, our well known favorite) at one of the capital’s impressive entertainment venues.
On other milestones and important occasions, we usually invite the Board and a few staunch supporters and friends to join the management and staff to a decent lunch right here on our premises. That proposition seems unlikely, days away from the 40th anniversary of the launch of the Daily Observer on February 16, 1981.
Yet, if you were to ask me what we want the most on the celebration of our fortieth, you might be shocked at our response. But hold on. I have to tell you our business story and why we make this particular wish on this anniversary.
Those born in the sixties, if they were news media sentient, are likely to remember the beginnings of the Daily Observer. That period was also the beginning of the Samuel Kanyon Doe era. Sergeant Doe and 11 other insurrectionists had stormed into the Executive Mansion, assassinated President William R. Tolbert and seized power on April 12, 1980. They later murdered 13 of President Tolbert’s top government officials. That was barely a year before we started publishing the paper.
When the coup took place, Kenneth and I were just about to leave Nairobi, Kenya at the end of his seven year tenure with the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC), headquartered there. Our goal was to return home to Liberia and start our country’s first independent daily newspaper. Our plan was grand and so exciting but we unwittingly did not give much thought to what impact a wicked military regime would have on a venture like ours where truth telling by a newspaper could be a death sentence. After all, we had never experienced a coup so our outlook on what we were getting ourselves into was astonishingly naïve.
Well, against the advice of his colleagues at the AACC to wait until the dust settled in Liberia, Kenneth and I packed up our four children and with barely four thousand dollars in our possession, but an impressive vision in our minds, we landed in our unrecognizable motherland. What a difference a coup can make!
Unfazed by the prevailing trauma inflicted on the nation, Kenneth was a man on a mission so he hit the ground running. His days from early morning to night were spent meeting with family, friends, business people, government officials to garner support for the establishment of the newspaper.
Many of those he contacted advised that Liberia was not ready for a daily newspaper. They said illiteracy was too high so readership was not promising. Some warned us that the political climate did not augur well for a newspaper such as we were describing. The military government comprising mainly semi-literate soldiers would have little to no appreciation for the role and importance of an independent newspaper and press freedom, they argued, reminding us of the imprisonments and inhumane treatments meted out to journalists by two preceding presidents, William V.S. Tubman and William R. Tolbert, who were far more educated and knowledgeable.
The Daily Observer was a hard sell to prospective shareholders and lenders, but Kenneth remained determined to start it. His confidence was unshaken by the evident challenges on the ground and he seemed to know what he was doing so I did not question, caution or discourage him. On hind sight, my failure to query him is embarrassing but thankfully I have been vindicated by the fruition of the vision and the success of the mission.
Those who were born in the sixties and earlier are old enough to remember the beginnings of the Daily Observer, if they were news media sentient.
In total contradiction to the considerable clique of pessimists we encountered, the newspaper at its inception became quickly popular, sought after and widely read in Liberia.
Public engagement with the newspaper was vigorous and exhilarating, spurred by its editorials and the various columns on agriculture, education, health, women the economy and risky political reporting, among others. Some claimed they could not start their day without reading the paper. From politicians to ordinary citizens, business people, religious leaders, the academic community, pundits and students all became strongly attached to this hugely popular and influential newspaper.
Circulation of the paper skyrocketed to thousands of copies a day. At one point our readers in difficult to reach communities complained that they were not getting the paper. Several organizations and individuals also demanded that copies be reserved and delivered to them. That demand led us into the phenomenon of subscriptions and we immediately hired two persons who began to supply the newspaper to a large number of homes and offices.
Yes, it was possible to print ten thousand or more copies of the newspaper a day. Liberia once had a web offset printing press. It was operated by the Government’s semi-autonomous entity, Central Printing, Incorporated (CPI), located on what later became known as the Ministry of Gender on the corner of Gurley Sreet and United Nations Drive, Monrovia. From its inception the Daily Observer became the main client of that parastatal. CPI declined when its income was not used to replenish the reels of newsprint it required from overseas and spare parts to service the printing press. Sadly, CPI folded when the Daily Observer suffered its longest closure by the Government for nearly two years, leaving the entity without a strong client base.
The newspaper’s circulation grew so rapidly that we began to fulfill one of our primary visions of making the paper available in all the counties both by road and air and we succeeded for a while. We dubbed this campaign our “people to people, people to government and government to people” outreach. It meant that all parties had access to the newspaper’s pages to let each other know what the other was thinking and doing in order to promote good governance. It also indicated that the Daily Observer was never intended only to be a Monrovia newspaper but instead to reach all parts of the country every day. Our first agents were located in Kakata, Buchanan, Ganta, Greenville, Harper, and Robertsport.
Our efforts to disseminate the paper nationwide took off well, increasing readership and revenue. However those efforts to circulate the paper outside of Monrovia soon began to wane for several reasons. Flights to Harper and other far off destinations became erratic and slowly phased out. The roads were deplorable and impassable for six months of the year due to the rainy season. As a result, vehicles plying the interior roads were often unreliable, sometimes delaying the paper’s arrival to agents by two days. That became unacceptable to subscribers who now wanted the paper in their hands the same day of publication.
Perhaps the straw that broke our campaign was the failure of the agents to make payments under the terms agreed to between them and LOC. The agents blamed chiefly the late arrival of the paper for the poor sales resulting in stacks of returns being submitted with their monthly reports. Some of the complaints were genuine but others were suspect. Eventually, dissemination to the counties ceased, shutting off that stream of revenue to the newspaper’s coffers.
The newspaper suffered a gradual decline in growth due unquestionably to the frequent closures, staff imprisonments and arson attacks under a ruthless military regime that had little understanding of or respect for freedom of the press and the role of the media in society — just as we had been advised. Angered by truth telling and exposure of their ineptitude and corrupt behavior or even due to their misunderstanding of the issues, the Doe regime inflicted outrageous reprisals against the Daily Observer including an agonizing eighteen-month closure, possibly a preemptive move with the help of foreign powers to silence the newspaper while Doe was in the process of being clandestinely elected president in 1985.
It is not the objective of this article to delve into the nefarious assaults against the Daily Observer by Doe and his miscreants such as Chea Chepoo, Nyeplue, Weh Seyn, Podier and several others who caused us so much grief and traumatized the nation. Most of these notorious individuals, including Doe himself, died in ignominy. Suffice it to say that while they meant it for evil, their machinations were not allowed to succeed but were instead stimulants to the newspaper’s credibility, growth and viability.
Circulation of the Daily Observer in the capital, Monrovia, during this tumultuous period remained robust, enabling management to pay salaries on time, service our startup bank loan and keep up with essential local and overseas supplies of newsprint, ink, plates and film. We even launched our own press, Yandia Printing Press (YPP), and began printing our own newspaper and several others although by slower, sheet-fed presses.
We were anxious to get into the lucrative commercial printing market and succeeded in winning a bid for USAID’s order of thousands of booklets and teaching manuals for dissemination to Government’s primary schools throughout the country. This was a massive undertaking with a tight timeline. The printing was done by our sheet fed presses and manually collated by a contingent of compilers working three shifts around the clock to meet the strict inspection and delivery deadlines.
The USAID contract was God-sent and, with this initial exceptional success by YPP, a new Liberian owned and operated printing press, our prospects in commercial printing looked great. We saw the YPP/Observer Corporation poised to venture into publishing in partnership with an international publisher or on our own. Indeed we learned that several Liberian writers were in search of a local publisher to produce their books for the local market, cutting the considerable cost of shipment incurred by having their books printed abroad.
At this point in our business endeavors, other prospects such as radio and TV enterprises did not seem farfetched to dream of and, we thought, easier to transition into than publishing.
Alas, the USAID contract turned out to be the last of its kind. It was 1989/90 and the civil war was looming. Charles Taylor was at the gates. Our family was soon exiled carrying with us our deferred dreams. But they remained unbroken.
Besides circulation and printing capacity earnings, the other important revenue stream of a newspaper is advertising. Liberian newspapers have always struggled in this area of our industry. In the early years of its existence, the Daily Observer appeared on the newsstands many days without makeup (ads). But for the very strong income from circulation (between 5 and 10 thousand copies a day), the paper would have gone under in its infancy. From the very start, businesses dealing in brand name products and services have outright rejected our solicitation of ads although many of their products come with an advertisement budget.
To this day, the drought of advertisement continues to be a serious impairment keeping most newspapers on life support. Without the back up of a healthy income from circulation due to severely reduced readership in current post war Liberia, the day to day cost of operation is a challenge that is not for the weak.
Chronically delayed payments for the few advertisements the newspaper receives are another serious obstacle confronting it. The Government and parastatals which are our major customers are notorious for overdue payments. This unpunctual trend has become noticeable and prevalent even among some NGOs and international agencies of late.
While the newspaper waits in desperation sometimes for months and even years after the standard 30 day payment due date, we are given excuses such as the constant denial of the receipt of invoices as well as the refusal of some bureaucrats to take responsibility for an organization’s bill because someone else was in charge when the bill was incurred. The local newspapers are also caught in the vicious cycle of a failed economy in which all players suffer but for the few in control of and outrageously benefit from the nation’s wealth.
As the newspaper’s accounts receivable increase so do our salary and other arrears. While we highly appreciate the patronage of our advertising customers, we respectfully ask that they meet their obligations to us punctually so that we also can pay salaries, a bank loan and other obligations on time.
It is of paramount importance to the Daily Observer management to produce a credible newspaper that fulfills its professional mandate to inform, educate, and entertain our readers and provide a platform for their views. This mandate requires the services of well educated, professionally trained and competent editorial and other staff that can produce the quality and standard of content we as readers and the LOC management expect on our pages. These staffs must be paid decently and on time for the long hours of work, the political and other high risks, dangers and the demands of the job to remain objective, ethical and unbridled in their reporting.
Liberian newspapers have remained stunted and anemic at twelve pages of mostly political news when so much more is happening in the lives of the ordinary citizens that begs for passionate, skilled, experienced and responsible reporters who are provided with the tools, incentives and mobility to do their job efficiently.
If we are tired of substandard reporting, poor grammar and spelling, and poorly printed newspapers which are a huge embarrassment, these problems can be fixed by customers, especially Government, paying in a timely manner for their ads, patronizing the press more instead of getting by with story commercials or unpaid infomercials. The press can use better cash flow to service and upgrade equipment, train staff and provide them with better incentives and working conditions.
All of us – the Government, businesses, citizens, NGOs – must support and protect media practitioners and institutions and thus uphold and protect press freedom which is essential to the wellbeing and progress of all of us. One action the Executive Mansion, for instance, can take with immediate effect is to discontinue making its website available for the posting of notices, undercutting revenue which could otherwise be earned by newspapers.
If the press is healthy and competent, their impact on our society can be hugely transformational. Telling the stories of the people can help mitigate wrongs against children, women, the poor, handicapped and sick. Corruption can be more vigorously exposed and alleviated. The health and education systems can be vastly improved when a vigorous, competent and motivated press shines the light on appalling conditions in some of the hospitals and schools in our nation.
Turn the street lights on but also make it possible for our youths who sell on the streets all day to attend school at night by turning the lights on in schools set up to offer them opportunities for advancement through academic and skills learning — if we are serious about education.
The street lights must now be followed by rapid and widespread availability of affordable electricity to homes to help improve the academic performance of students – if we are serious about education. Electricity can empower the internet and newspapers to push the nation out of the ditch of ignorance, illiteracy and academic malaise that are keeping us in the third world column.
Newspapers can become fiscally and physically healthier with reliable, affordable electricity to curtail the high cost of maintaining generators and the environmentally noxious fuel to power them.
With commitment, patriotism, passion, integrity and competence, the press can be an invaluable partner working with all stakeholders for progress and advancement in every sector of our economy, especially education. With our ever increasing student population, newspapers can become highly useful tools to help fix the shortage of learning materials throughout our school system if we are to catch up with the sub region in academic measurement.
Now we are poised to tell you what we want the most to celebrate our fortieth anniversary. We want to be able to pay off our staff for the many months of arrears that management owes them. At forty, this will give us a fresh start and a chance at growth and viability.
We are not asking for handouts. We are asking for our customers’ continued and increased advertising patronage as possible and prompt payment for same. Those who are in arrears are urged to pay up without further delay as we contact you. We ask that procurement managers be reasonably equitable in their decision making and not be influenced by political and other gripes. Newspapers are businesses.
The Government and its parastatals as business clients should be the paradigm in demonstrating standard business practices in the economy and support a free and vibrant press among other enterprises in Liberia. After all, newspapers are businesses intended to grow and turn a profit.
One Observer employee disclosed in a staff meeting recently that “they could have gone on strike for salary arrears, but they did not want to bring embarrassment on Mr. Best.” I believe our staff is aware that in this instance, it is not the matter of having the funds and refusing to pay them while paying ourselves and living large.
Our heartfelt thanks are due the entire staff who sacrificially endure many hardships but continue to work in our mutual hope that a breakthrough is around the corner and we will be granted that wish that we become salary arrears free and a better performing newspaper as a result. With the support of our Board of Directors, the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment (LBDI) and several loyal customers, friends and family and most of all, the help of our faithful God, we remain in business with dreams still waiting to be fulfilled – even “with worn-out tools”.
In those tumultuous, terrifying years, egregious attacks, injuries, serious damages and economic hardship were caused to our family, the Daily Observer and its staff and the C.T.H. Dennis property on Crown Hill hosting our offices. This magnitude of terrorizing was an unsuccessful attempt to curtail our endeavors, crush our spirits, extinguish our vision and essentially erase us.
The hardships and constant setbacks to the newspaper were assuaged only by the widespread public endorsement, patronage and loyalty which exist to this day. Our steadfast league of supporters, friends and family drove far from us any thought of abandoning what we were convinced is our God given beat in life.
A huge source of support and influence were our shareholders who in spite of the volatile situation prevailing in the country stepped forward as investors to this indeterminate newspaper’s fetus. Later, the first Board of Directors was led by the distinguished and fearless Albert Porte, himself a target of governments’ anger and reprisals for his pamphlet’s sharp criticism of their misdeeds.
One supporter to be profoundly praised is Muriel Best, Kenneth’s oldest sibling, who without hesitation or question, offered her property as collateral to help secure the Observer’s startup loan from LBDI.
Not to be forgotten is the team of “righteous lawyers” led by Counselor S. Raymond Horace and including Counselors Emmanuel J. Berry, and Christian D. Maxwell, who defended us in kangaroo courts staged by the notorious military actors in the Doe regime.
For the founders of the Daily Observer, having an offspring willing to grasp the baton of this onerous undertaking and race forward with confidence and faith in God, is an incredible gift and blessing to any parent concerned about the future of their life’s work. Absolutely, we have every right to be indignant over the suffering, hardships and setbacks aforementioned. But after 40 years of purposeful and impactful existence, the investment of family, and an army of supporters, we have absolutely no right to be ungrateful.