Namibian newspaper start-up Confidénte defies the odds

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By Gill Moodie

While a pall of gloom hung over the presentation of ABC circulation figures in Cape Town recently, in bounced Max Hamata, the editor-in-chief of a new Namibian weekly, full of enthusiasm for his paper and his country’s media industry.

There was Hamata enthusiastically waiting for his (provisional) ABCs even as he operates in much tougher circumstances than we do in South Africa, with Namibia’s tiny population – about 2.3-million – and huge distances between centres.

As we watch most of our SA papers suffer circulation decline, Hamata is pleased to have netted 7 321 total circulation in the last quarter of 2012 after launching Confidénte in September 2011 with only his pension for funding because he is on the upwards trajectory in a country that he says value news.

“I should have done this a long time ago (started a newspaper),” says Hamata who studied journalism in Cape Town and trained at the Mail & Guardian in Johannesburg before returning to Windhoek, where he worked for the highly regarded The Namibian and other titles.

He believes there is more room to grow and is aiming for 42 000 weekly circulation.

Hamata told that he was not planning to move into the daily market as it was easier to do investigative stories – the hallmark of Confidénte – on a weekly cycle.

“It is challenging to sell newspapers in Namibia but good content sells. For me, it’s important that we compete on the shelves in terms of the worth of our news. Most of the newspapers are more into conformist kind of journalism. Some are not willing to challenge public policy.”

Gwen Lister, the founder of The Namibian told “The Namibian media certainly conforms to the Windhoek Declaration in terms of its pluralism and diversity but it is clear that this is going to become more difficult to sustain in the future. Although the growth in sales here is bucking the trend of what is happening elsewhere in the world – and even the sub-continent in terms of diminishing sales – the advertising cake remains too small to sustain all print media.

“State subsidisation of New Era (the government newspaper) and Southern Times (a joint venture between the Namibian and Zimbabwe governments) is unlikely to diminish; and owners of private media which have not yet reached break-even may also have to dig deep into their pockets.

“It is very encouraging that Namibians are reading more newspapers but the numbers remain relatively small in a country of just over two million people. And printing costs are high and distribution and production costs crippling.”

So how has Hamata survived in this difficult industry when he is also known as being critical of the government and is breaking stories such as the recent exposé of a fraudulent N$1.5-billion food tender for the defence ministry.

Well, he started very small – with a print-run of 3 000 copies – and with a handful of journalists prepared to work for very little. Hamata had helped them as journalism students and they had worked for him as the editor of a free tabloid owned by a prominent Namibian businessman before he started Confidénte.

His newsroom is still small and Hamata himself writes stories.

He also found a novel solution to one of the biggest problems facing Namibian newspapers – distribution, which is very expensive in the large, sparsely populated country.

After six months of forking out a lot of money to minibus taxis to deliver his papers (outside of Windhoek the main areas are Swakopmund and Walvis Bay on the coast and the more populated north of the country), Hamata approached a friend who owned a national courier business and did a barter deal: the courier service delivers Confidénte in exchange for advertising in the paper.

“This arrangement has worked out very well for us,” Hamata says. “He is very happy and tells me that he’s reaching his audience through the newspaper and appreciates that advertising is very expensive.”

Confidénte grew to a 5 000 print run (with a 10% return rate) with the barter deal and today it is at between 10 000 and 11 000, Hamata says. “If it wasn’t for printing costs eating into our budget, we would have pushed it up to 15 000.”

The other key to his survival, says Hamata, is hiring a very experience, retired distribution and circulation expert to look after that side of the business and he has an accountant that helps to make sure that admin is on track and cash flow doesn’t dry up.

“The first few months were just about pumping out money and not expecting any return but there were a few people who were very sympathetic to my noble objectives and they took out adverts here and there.”

His biggest challenge at the moment is the incredibly high cost of printing in Namibia, where there is only one printing firm.

Printing consumes about half of Confidénte’s budget, says Hamata.

“If I could just cut my printing costs by just 30%, I would have started breaking even already… But we are still very optimistic. The paper is growing and our return rate has dropped to 4%. Our advertising loading has really gone up now – it’s almost like a miracle.

“Getting our share of the advertising cake has been our major challenge (since launching). Advertising is not really determined by the wider reach of your newspaper but more by who knows who.

“But we are winning now. Since November we’ve been reaching 50% loading. It’s good for a beginner. We’ve not yet been to the bank for an overdraft. We are paying service providers. It is encouraging. There is really light at the end of the tunnel. ”

Between the Lines