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Interview

“Prudent conditionality”

by Madiambal Diagne
Le Quotidien is a Senegalese newspaper that was started in 2003 and has since become one of West Africa’s leading publications. Founder-publisher Madiambal Diagne told Hans Dembowski what distinguishes his paper from others and what role he sees for the media in development. [ Interview with Madiambal Diagne ]

Is it true that Le Quotidien was the first paper in Senegal to focus on the quality of its journalism?
No, that is an overstatement. But we do rate the competence of our staff. Strong human resources are certainly one of our competitive advantages. I want the business desk to be handled by someone with a degree in economics or with professional experience in the field, I want legal affairs to be covered by someone who really understands these tricky matters. Education matters a lot, if you want accurate reporting. We need outstanding people for our publications – Le Quotidien, our daily, and its weekly sibling called Weekend. And as top quality has a price, we pay competitive salaries.

Is that also the price of independence?
To some extent, yes. I need journalists that can assess matters well, and I don’t want them to be tempted to serve outside interests. You can ask anyone you like in Senegal, and they will tell you that our publications tell things as they are. We achieved that reputation by adhering to professional principles in terms of ethics, in terms of researching facts and in terms of involving the sources that are relevant to any specific topic. So yes, our pay structure has to attract professionals who could do other well-paid work instead of journalism.

So you are not following a certain party-political ideology, for instance?
(Laughs.) In my papers, I sometimes read opinions I don’t share, and that is how it should be. What matters is that journalists make up their mind on the basis of strong research. That is the way to convince our readers that we are doing our best to understand what is going on.

But isn’t there pressure from advertisers? In Germany, a rough estimate is that one third of a paper’s revenue stems from selling that paper to readers and two thirds from selling space in the paper to adver­tisers.
In our case, the ratio is the other way around. We get 60 % of our revenue from sales, and only 40 % from advertising. If we accepted pressure from advertisers, we could probably get more ads. So far, for instance, the government and public-sector companies do not advertise in Le Quotidien or Weekend because they do not like our independence. But if we caved in to that pressure, we would loose circulation. As the relationship with our readers is the long-term basis for our business, it is more important than maximising advertising revenue.

Do you get enough advertising?
Well, we have to be creative. For instance, we introduced classified advertising in Senegal, which generates revenue. Things are not easy, especially in the economic downturn we are facing due to the global financial crisis that started on Wall Street. We have to look out for new opportunities. If a product is not profitable, we cannot afford to run it. That is why we decided to close our Fm radio station sometime ago. We couldn’t afford to keep on loosing money.

What about Le Quotidien’s website, is it profitable?
It does not generate a lot of revenue, that is true, though we do get some adver­tising. Nonetheless, the website is very useful as a way to reach out to readers outside the country, for instance. Moreover, it is not expensive, we use the content we have to produce for the paper anyway, so basically the costs are only about posting that content on the web. We had the website from the very beginning of the paper in 2003.

Does your strategic thinking go beyond Senegal’s borders, do you see Francophone Africa as your potential market?
That is a good question. We are indeed considering the launch of versions of Le Quotidien in Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. We are talking with publishers there, and I think it could work.

Unlike Senegal or Mali, Cote d’Ivoire is politically fragile. Doesn’t that rule out successful journalism? In situations of conflict, it can become impossible to contact sources on all sides.
I know the country quite well, I’m sure we could work there, and L’Olymp, the company we are discussing the joint venture with, is working there quite successfully.

Is there a particular responsibility for the media in countries that are plagued by violent conflict or even full-blown civil war?
Good reporting can – and should – contribute to finding non-violent solutions. The media must spell out what the issues are and what various interest groups in a country want. If that is done responsibly, it can help to foster compromise and perhaps even consensus. So yes, I do think the media are relevant to a nation’s understanding of itself and its political culture. Imagine France without Le Figaro, Le Monde and La Liberation. It would not be the same country.

But don’t the media exacerbate conflict by stirring up sentiments?
Yes, there is such a risk. Pointing out grievances is a way to attract readers, and the media have to be interested in things that are not going well. They are watchdogs, their job is to express public dissatisfaction. But that has to be done with a sense of responsibility, of weighing options, otherwise the media can become destructive.

Newspapers are in crisis in many countries, and even in the USA, there is now a debate about whether there should be some kind of public support for newspapers. What do you think?
Well, I know that the Sarkozy government in France has been considering giving young people in High School the option of subscribing to a newspaper of their choice for free, in an attempt to get them used to relying on this source of information. I think the idea is excellent, not least because it is not biased towards papers that toe the government’s line. That kind of support would make sense. Western governments have spent a lot of money to bail out banks and the car industry. There is no reason why governments should not help free media to survive too. This is not just another business sector, this sector is relevant to democratic politics and the national culture. Newspapers are never only about maximising business profits.

Should donors support papers in developing countries?
Yes, they should, and there are many ways of doing so. For instance, they can help us in terms of education and training, including training for the managers of media organisations. Moreover, they can support us in terms of technology, for instance by hooking us up with publishers in their country that will pass on old IT equipment that can still be useful for us. Most important of all, however, donors should insist on recipient governments granting space to independent and critical journalism. That would help them to find out whether a president is really building the hospital, as he promised, or rather buying an airplane that pleases him personally instead. Democracy needs a public sphere that is strong enough to monitor those in power.

But wouldn’t that kind of pressure amount to neo-colonial imperialism, with donor governments interfering in poorer countries’ domestic issues?
Aid, and international cooperation in general, are always linked to some conditions. What matters is to have conditions that lead to a better future, it is pointless to fight conditionality per se. If donor governments are really interested in good governance in Africa, independent media are their natural allies. So support for their sphere of action would be a prudent conditionality, and it would really benefit the society concerned. And one must not underestimate the issue. Newspapers in Africa are really still quite weak.

In what sense?
In more than one sense. First, we are still struggling with analphabetism, many people cannot read a newspaper. Second, distribution is difficult. We print in the big cities, but it is hard to get the product to the smaller towns, not even to mention rural areas. Trucks and trains are slow, there are no domestic airlines. In many places in Senegal, you’d be lucky to get today’s Quotidien tonight, often it is only available the next morning. All this, of course, adds up to limited circulation and a weak economic basis. Low revenues, in turn, mean that it is hard to hire top-rate professionals.

But haven’t newspapers expanded fast in the past couple of years? Africa has seen an economic upturn, which is still evident in the many construction sites all over Dakar. Literacy has increased too. I’ve been told that something like the Quoti­dien wouldn’t have seemed imaginable 20 or even 15 years ago.
Yes, the newspaper industry has grown, and we have gained relevance. But don’t forget that our growth started from a very small base. Our country is developing, and so is our industry, and the better our industry develops, the better our country can develop. This is a virtuous circle.

Couldn’t radio do much of the job?
Radio is important, no doubt. But newspapers give people in-depth information. If, for instance, there is an official report on some government scandal, we will print that report for people to read. That kind of information is more forceful than a debate on radio will ever be.