‘Brothers from another mother': Southern African media companies paired for success

03 Vincent & Tikhala Case Study 1

Vincent Kahiya, editor-in-chief at Alpha Media Holdings in Zimbabwe.

Exploring a new angle on knowledge transfer, WAN-IFRA’s Executive Twinning Programme emphasizes the exchange of knowledge and creation of support systems between peers from similar markets facing familiar challenges. The programme promotes a south-south exchange that is rarely seen in the global media development context, and is driven by newspapers in emerging markets seeking to co-operate and learn from each other’s successes – and failures – to share best practice and guarantee a healthy business future.

Sometimes the best ideas are the ones found closest to home. For many years, traditional media development practices followed the mantra of sending a specialist from an established, usually Western media company to pass on skills and ideas to colleagues in emerging markets. However, in 2011, WAN-IFRA turned this notion on its head by launching a twinning initiative that – for the first time – linked newspapers working in neighbouring countries with similar environments.

The match: Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL) in Malawi and, just over the border to the south, Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) in Zimbabwe.

“We’re like brothers from another mother,” says Thikala Chiwana, the general manager at BNL about his twinning partner Vincent Kahiya, editor-in-chief at AMH. “Siblings, marriage, it’s a relationship and both partners must work on it.”

The initial program was designed to support an 18-month partnership where two teams of news executives –headed by Chiwana and Kahiya –would meet and exchange ideas, best practices and troubleshoot familiar challenges.

The pairing of Malawi’s oldest media company, founded in 1895, with AMH, which runs three major newspapers in Zimbabwe, emerged as a perfect fit.

During the course of joint sessions in Harare, Johannesburg, and Blantyre both media houses were exposed to new practices and ideas. Collaboration across borders emerged for a first time as a new model for leveraging independent media across Africa.

“I think the key is the realisation that there other are people serving a different market from yours, grappling with exactly the same problems that you’re dealing with,” says Chiwana. “You may be at different stages of development but either they are going to face those same challenges or they have already gone past that stage.”

Three years on, the relationship has blossomed into a life-long relationship where ideas and solutions continue to be implemented in both newsrooms.

First time impressions

When Chiwana looks back at his first meeting with Kahiya, he says he wasn’t really sure how beneficial a few touch-and-go meetings could be. As it was a pilot program, he says he didn’t have any other partnerships to refer to on how to succeed at twinning.

Kahiya agrees that there was some confusion surrounding what they were supposed to do. “We sat in a room and we were told you talk to this guy, you talk this guy,” Kahiya says. “And we were not sure what we were going to talk about and whether it was going to make a difference.”

However, they were both proved wrong as WAN-IFRA led the two papers in forming a relationship based on cooperation and synergy.

03 Vincent & Tikhala Case study 2“The World Association of Newspapers was very useful, firstly in terms of putting us together. And second in terms of following up and wanting to know how quickly or how the program was working,” Kahiya says. “What that did was to keep us on our toes.”

There was not a single moment where their fledgling relationship clicked, but rather that it was a gradual build up of trust that enabled them to foster a close bond. Once the conversation became more fluid, both Chiwana and Kahiya were able to identify common challenges.

“You need to overcome that they can’t use the information you are giving against you. They are friends and there are things they can do to enhance your organisation,” says Chiwana. “It’s really a give and take. I think once we got passed that and built the confidence in each other then the rest became a lot easier.”

At the start of the relationship, both publications were undergoing a period of change characterised both by new endeavours, and great challenges such as changes in management and business structure.

AMH had just launched the daily Newsday and were putting together a social media strategy and redesigning of their websites. BNL, which publishes BNL Times among other titles, was seeking to elevate its success and presence to the level of other comparable titles in neighbouring countries.

Part of a successful twinning partnership rests in the ability to self-reflect and step back and gauge why things are done the way they are.

“When you are involved in an organisation you are part of a system and there are certain things you do as a matter of habit. Sometimes you do not give it too much thought,” says Chiwana. “And when one of your twinning partners walks in and they start asking questions then you are forced to step back and reflect and say ok why do we do things this way.”

Setting in motion

Over the course of three years, multitudes of new ideas were implemented in both newsrooms. These tangible outcomes emerged from strategic workshops, site visits and tours of each newsroom, job shadowing and mentoring, and conference calls and from interaction with experts in the industry.

For Chiwana, here are just several of the most outstanding changes to come from the WAN-IFRA twinning programme.

Content management system:

BNL had long been searching for the right CMS. But it was not until a visit to AMH that the right one emerged. Designed in-house, Chiwana paid a small fee for similar version adapted to his newsroom’s operations. The new system helps them efficiently generate orders, send out subscription reminders and generate reports.

Female employees given more opportunities:

While women at BNL media fill a number of top roles, they were not hired to serve as newspaper inserters during the night. Men had typically been employed to collate the newspaper printed into two different sections. When Chiwana visited AMH he asked, “what are all these women doing here at night?” Because of the oft-hard hours of working at night, opening this position never crossed anyone’s mind at BNL. However, a positive experience of opening this position to all genders worked for AMH and Chiwana followed suit.

Super desks:

As seen at AMH, Chiwana implemented super desks to help with coordination between the various publications at BNL. Now, there is one super desk for business or sports so topics are not accidently covered twice, for example during the week and then in the Saturday or Sunday paper. Proved successful, the idea of super desks has now spread to the sales department at BNL.

Continued success


Times Group in Malawi.

For Alpha Media Holdings the twinning programme really morphed into an exciting, and beneficial programme after Kahiya visited BNL’s newsroom in Malawi.

“They opened up their business to us and we saw what they were doing. They told us what their problems are and immediately we began to identify with some of their challenges,” Kahiya says.

For example, during one visit BNL in Blayntre, a conversation sparked about why BNL had an in-house lawyer. Kahiya questioned the lawyer’s role in the editorial process – for example, did a lawyer’s presence facilitate self-censorship?

“I really interrogated him on what he was doing working with journalists,” Kahiya says. “But after that I discovered that it was very helpful. I think we have made a huge saving by having a legal council in our organisation.”

Chiwana also explained to him that the lawyer is not part of the editorial process but rather is always available to handle legal issues in-house arising from lawsuits, handling of contracts, or in the event of a difficult story can offer journalist’s advice on what the implications may be for covering a story.

Both newspapers also saw their online presence skyrocket during the twinning programme. While each paper was faced with challenging times, a training with South Africa’s Globe & Mail organised via the twinning programme helped both Chiwana and Kahiya realise that despite disruption, new products could still be developed and presence increased.

“With AMH our online presence improved during that period when we had disruption to the extent that we are now the largest media house online in the country and it took us two years to achieve that,” Kahiya says, adding that the same has happened for BNL.

“I monitor their progress, their social media progress,” Kahiya says. “I think in that area we have done really well, both organisations on the digital front.”

Twinning is now second nature for these two news executives. Whether it’s a new product one of the papers is exploring or plans to venture deeper into television or radio, both Kahiya and Chiwana feel confident that they always have a peer just a phone call away.

-Alexandra Waldhorn


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