Newsletter No 11 20 December 2005
 
Financial Management:
Peace Brings Commercial Benefits to Sudanese Daily

Prospects for peace in Sudan were not the only thing to improve when President Bashir entered into a power sharing government with the Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in July 2005. The prospects for newspapers have also improved.

During a visit to Sudan in December, APN spoke with Maghoub Mohamed Salih, editor in chief of Al Ayaam newspaper, and WAN’s 2005 Golden Pen of Freedom laureate.

Direct censorship and harassment have decreased markedly in the past six months. “The absence of regular visits by security agents to newspapers operating the capital to censor all articles before going to print is the most noticeable change”, says Salih. Relaxing of government restrictions has also helped to improve circulation figures, as readers are returning to newspapers for credible information and analysis of the political situation.

The increase in newspaper sales means that advertisers have taken a keener interest in the medium. “One year ago, advertising comprised only 10 percent of
Al Ayaam’s total revenues. It has slowly climbed up to 30 percent, by the end of the year I hope that it will have hit 40 percent,” says Salih. Al Ayaam prints in black and white, however its first and last pages are printed in color. The newspaper’s biggest current advertisers are from the telecommunications industry. “A war between two large mobile networks has been good for us in terms of advertising,” says Salih. Advertisers today will go as far as to take out a full color page advertisement, which costs the equivalent of 1,000USD. The increase in advertising has meant that the newspaper, which averages from 12 to 14 pages, is sometimes double this figure. Al Ayaam’s 3-member advertising department was trained on the job. The in-house advertising department receives five percent commission on all sales. External consultants receive 15 percent commission.

In addition to the recent increase in revenues from advertising, a number of long-term initiatives to attract new readers, such as expanding its network of correspondents and creating ‘community correspondents’, along with a recent decision to print on its own press, has helped
Al Ayaam overcome the multiple daily challenges of running a daily in a highly competitive market that is characterized by a low readership pool, inadequate distribution networks and weak advertising.

Readership loyalty is something the newspaper understands to be of vital importance, and despite government restrictions in the past,
Al Ayaam has not shied away from controversial subjects that are important to its readership-base. ”The ongoing conflict in Darfur has been a permanent feature in Al Ayaam, since the violence first broke out,” says Salih. “I’ve been arrested a few times for reporting on Darfur. Most recently, I was arrested in November 2003 and the newspaper was closed down for four months, but by that time the whole issue had been blown out of the water.”

Al Ayaam is one of the few publications to also have a correspondent in the northern-most regions of the country, close to the Egyptian border. “The goal of keeping a correspondent on retainer there is to shed light on the extreme poverty in the area, as well as the encroachment of the desert on the villages,” says Salih. The newspaper has also sent a correspondent north to build up a string of correspondents linking Khartoum to the outlying region. But this is an expensive practice. “What we really need is a news agency, however newspapers currently don’t have enough funds to keep the new agency going,” notes the editor. A government news agency does exist, but Salih says it relies almost exclusively on government hand-outs and can not be depended upon for impartial information.

In 2002,
Al Ayaam saw an opportunity to reach out to the thousands of ‘Internally Displaced People’ that had settled in makeshift camps around the capital. “These people are completely marginalized and our regular readers do not know what is going on in these communities” says Salih. The newspaper devised the idea of having ‘community correspondents’, who would report from the camps on issues relevant to these communities. To begin, the editor sent three of his journalists to meet and write stories about some of the people living in the camps. They were also charged with soliciting some within the community to begin reporting for Al Ayaam on activities taking place in the camps. The prerequisite was simple. All must have at least a grade six education and be able to write. The newspaper recruited 12 women - some of them nurses and teachers in the communities - and brought them into Al Ayaam’s offices for a two week training course on how to report and write on issues such as health, employment, education and sexual harassment. The community correspondents are kept on a monthly retainer, which is half the minimum wage in Sudan. Three years on, the newspaper still has 8 community correspondents on staff and each contributes one story per week.

Distribution remains a serious challenge for
Al Ayaam. Delivery to Port Sudan, a city located on the Red Sea, usually takes 24 hours. The newspaper relies on delivery by bus, because delivery by air is very expensive, infrequent and unreliable. Western and Eastern parts of the country are very poorly represented as well, and in some areas no newspapers reach readers at all.

Tired of waiting in long queues and paying out to a private printer, six months ago the newspaper began renting its own printing press for a cost of 6,000USD per month. Despite this high figure and the desire to own his own printing press, Salih has run the figures and says it is more financially sustainable to rent his own press than print on a commercial press. Al Ayaam has very recently begun printing a new emergence on the market, the English-language daily The Citizen. The newspaper, which appeared on newsstands on 1 December, is directed at a southern, English-speaking audience, yet it plans to print in Arabic on Fridays.

Al Ayaam has a staff of 32, eight of which are management level. The newspaper has one financial controller, two accountants, one circulation manager and three staff in advertising. Circulation for the newspaper fluctuates around 1 000.