A pandemic-inspired opportunity

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By Francis Ayieko, The Shepherd

When Kenya confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 12, I had no idea how the outbreak would impact our publishing business. I publish a monthly Christian newspaper known as The Shepherd. We had produced the March issue just a week before the announcement, and we were already working on the April edition.

Whereas some leading media houses in the country started putting in place business continuity plans way back in February after the virus started spreading aggressively in several countries across the globe, small news organisations like us with very small budgets hardly had any contingency measures in place.

In the next few days, the number of infections started climbing. As part of the measures to curb the spread of the disease, the government advised people, especially Nairobi residents, to stay at home. With few people going to the city centre, newsstand sales started dwindling.

That was when it hit me that things were not looking good for us. We sell our paper mainly through street vendors who rely on human traffic. With empty streets, some of them closed down while the few remaining ones complained of low sales.

What were we to do? How would we survive the pandemic?

After some consultation, it became clear that the only way we could continue serving our readers in the midst of the pandemic was to go online. We already had a website, but we never used to post stories regularly.

With the pandemic, we figured out that digital distribution would be more effective than hard copy distribution. So we cancelled plans to produce print editions until things come back to normal.

The original idea was to produce an e-paper that we would then sell on our website. That is still the plan, but we realised there was no point trying to sell the e-paper when we were not sure about traffic to the website.

Since April 19, we have been posting at least one story to the website daily except on Sundays. As soon as a story is posted, we send it to everyone on our mailing list through a specially designed e-newsletter that carries the story and the publisher’s note. If you click on the story, it takes you directly to our website.

That is how we have been able to build traffic. The first one week was fantastic, with traffic growing by over 600 percent. By the time of writing this article (the morning of May 2), traffic had increased by 1,700 percent.

(Our latest analytics report shows majority of our readers are from Kenya at 66.6 percent, followed by Europe at 20.4 percent, and United States at 7.2 percent.)

We have also continued adding names to our mailing list to ensure we reach more people. We are now working on our first e-paper and hope to convert our online readers into buyers.

The most challenging bit about our new approach to reaching readers is content creation. It is hard enough to get sufficient stories to post daily under normal circumstances; it is much harder to generate content in this time of isolation and social distancing. So how have we managed to keep stories flowing in?

The Shepherd only has one full-time reporter-cum-editor. Early this year, I engaged a freelance copy editor so that the reporter could concentrate on writing stories. Since the pandemic hit home, the reporter has been producing about 50 per cent of all the stories we post.

Because movements have been restricted and social distancing and isolation are in force, we mainly rely on the networks we have built over time to get the stories we want. Most of our interviews are done on the phone and through email.

The rest of the stories are written by our usual contributors through my guidance. A few of them pitch story ideas, but I usually assign some of them stories. That kind of collaboration has helped us have a continuous flow of fresh stories.

Before we started posting, I made sure we had in the bank stories to last us more than a week. We keep adding to the bank as days go by.

I work from home whereas the reporter compiles his stories from our small office in downtown Nairobi after he is done with phone interviews at home.

The disruption and damage the pandemic has caused around the world is regrettable. But we thank God for keeping us safe and using the hardships brought about by the virus to open our eyes to see opportunities we had neglected. We plan to continue with our new-found online publishing even after we resume hard copy production.

The writer is the founder and publisher of The Shepherd newspaper. He can be reached at fayieko@shepherdmedia.org. Our website is www.shepherdmedia.org.

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