Alfred Sirleaf’s ‘Daily Talk’ newspaper reaches thousands of Liberians every day but only ever produces one copy. How does he do it? By writing the day’s biggest stories on a large blackboard beside
Like most newspapers, Liberia’s Daily Talk has a slogan. “Reaching the needy with unfolding developments,” it reads, just below the masthead. But the Daily Talk doesn’t look like most newspapers. It’s a blackboard.
For almost a decade Alfred Sirleaf’s blackboard, perched on the pavement beside a busy Monrovia highway, has been delivering breaking news to thousands of readers every day. As many as a dozen stories are chalked onto the board and Sirleaf, an excitable and tenacious journalist, updates his “newspaper” several times a day as he collects snippets and scoops from a network of sources across the country. “The big stories go on the front page,” he says, pointing to the centre of the blackboard, where a headline about Liberia’s truth and reconciliation report is spelt out in six-inch-high letters. Smaller stories about UN troops and petrol prices are packed along the side.
Sirleaf established Daily Talk in 2000, in the midst of Liberia’s civil war. There was, he says, “a complete breakdown of freedom of information”. Many of the newspapers were controlled by different warring factions, making it hard for civilians to establish what was really going on. “They needed somebody to inform them,” Sirleaf says.
At most times during the day there is a crowd of at least 20 people – mainly men – getting the news from the blackboard. A few cars slow down as they approach, the drivers quickly glancing at the headlines, before speeding up and moving on. Particularly big news days – say, the visit of then US President George W Bush or when former president Charles Taylor went into exile – have caused car crashes, Sirleaf claims.
In a country where more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, Sirleaf’s free news source is popular. Not everyone has been so enthusiastic about his project, though. Twice during the civil war of 1999-2003 his blackboard and little wooden office attached to the back of the board were destroyed. Sirleaf hasn’t had any threats of violence since the election of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (no relation) in 2005, although people still try to influence what he writes. “The pressure now is diplomatic,” he says. “But I decide what news is best.”
Sirleaf is currently trying to raise $1,500 (€1,000) to rebuild his wooden news hut, which requires plenty of upkeep during rainy season. He also has dreams of expanding Daily Talk to other parts of the country. Sirleaf’s funding is irregular. He receives donations from members of the public and sometimes accepts small adverts. “I get by,” he says.
For now, though, his principal concern is keeping his Monrovia edition up to date. A text message alerted him to his biggest story of the year so far: the death of popstar Michael Jackson. “That went on the front page straight away,” he says.
Most Kenyans buy their newspapers from men like Oliwah Musumba. Every morning the 29-year-old collects a few hundred copies of Kenya’s four main dailies and sets up his stall on Kenyatta Avenue in Nairobi’s business district. If he can afford to hire an assistant for the morning, he will give him as many copies as he can carry and send him to Uhuru Highway, the main dual carriageway through the heart of Nairobi.
“It’s the best place to sell because people are just stuck in a traffic jam,” Musumba says. “They can be there for 20 minutes, not moving. So they buy a paper and read it while they wait.”
Big stories about the scandals within Kenya’s creaking coalition government can help Musumba finish his day by mid-afternoon. A picture of Kenya’s favourite American, Barack Obama, also helps. “The day Obama won we sold uncountable copies of papers,” he says. Musumba also sells magazines, from British editions of Men’s Health and The Economist to Kenyan favourites Adam and Drum. Homegrown titles sell better, but the sale of a foreign publication can boost his daily income by 30 per cent.
Musumba’s main income, however, is from papers; on a good day he’ll sell 300 copies and make 600 shillings (€6). His income is boosted by allowing some customers to borrow a copy rather than buy it. For five shillings (€0.05), they can read a paper from cover to cover before handing it back. As a vendor and a lender, Musumba has all the angles covered.
Daily Nation: Viewed as the establishment paper. Strong comment section includes one of Africa’s finest cartoonists, Gado.
The Standard: Kenya’s oldest paper. Sells most copies on Fridays when younger readers buy it for Pulse magazine.
The Star: New paper aimed at 20- and 30-somethings. Less politics, more celebrity. Business Daily: Printed on pink paper, it has thrived since its launch in 2007.
In Kenya, I am advising on a total rethink of the Nation, a project premiering before the end of the year. Like in a marathon, two Kenyans run side-by-side, the Nation and The Standard. Stay tuned.
Africans still see reading papers as fun and necessary (God bless them!), and just this week we helped with the birth of a new daily in Lagos, Nigeria, called Next. The colourful tabloid, under the direction of Pulitzer winner Dele Olojede, is totally independent. Nigeria needs Next and its brand of investigative journalism.
At a time when newspaper funerals are being predicted, it is nice to witness a new daily being born – and Next came out kicking and screaming.