ON THE FACE OF IT, my son’s upmarket bar/restaurant in Accra should interest newspapermen little beyond the opportunity for a decent meal, a long cold drink in hot-as-hell Ghana and the possibility that a friendly waiter will feed a visiting reporter’s expenses scam with a handful of till receipts in exchange for a generous tip.
But there is a lesson to be learned that cuts to the heart of the continued existence of newsprint titles.
The eponymous Eleanor’s, so named for my son’s wife and business partner, is a busy venue operated 18 hours a day by its hard-working owners in the capital’s middle-class suburb of North Legon. Its latest enterprise offers a breakfast sitting from 6am, at which the most popular meal by far is a rather posh Full English (Buck’s Fizz and all) served with free newspapers.
Sure, there is 24-hour rolling news from BBC World and CNN running constantly on the bar’s big TV wall screens. Intriguingly, hardly a diner moves a muscle to catch a glimpse of the colourful images, nor does his or her face leave the carefully folded newspaper that is propped up between the cruets and the Full English plate.
In a country whose traditional newspapers are suffering the same digital media onslaught that has driven its English speaking ‘big brothers’ into full retreat, a printed paper at the breakfast table is the accompaniment of choice.
But the lesson for newspapermen is one British and American newspapermen learned too late and which Ghana will learn to her cost. My son’s decision to give his early bird business breakfasts the edge over rivals by providing free newspapers so delighted his customers that he quickly augmented his daily bundle of Daily Graphics with similar numbers of the Daily Post and The Guide.
The new business also pleased the newspaper wholesaler, who agreed to ensure delivery before the first customers arrive each day. Until late last week. . .
“Sorry, boss,” said the wholesaler’s rep sadly. “No newspapers Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday. Nothing ‘til next Tuesday.” And then, seeing the bemused look on my son’s face, he quickly explained: “It’s Easter.”
Now Ghana is a highly religious country which also boasts an enormous penetration of mobile phone users: almost 100 per cent of the population own mobiles in a nation with scarce access to landlines. At the same time, there is a great emphasis on education and there has traditionally been a powerful emphasis on print journalism.
The most widely-read paper, particularly among the better-educated, is the state-owned Daily Graphic, established in 1950 by Cecil King, then chairman of the UK’s Mirror Group. Despite recent losses it still sells 100,000 copies daily. But not, apparently, on religious holidays; like the ‘50s/’60s Britain of my youth, Easter and Christmas are shutdown zones for the press. So from Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday will be a four-day wayzgoose (traditional printers’ holiday) in Ghana. And customers like my son can’t understand it.
“It’s not just the religious holidays,” he moaned. “Ghana’s newspapers seem to be blindly following the Western print media over the cliff. There is a feeling that the complete victory of digital over dead trees is inevitable but judging by my customers (our breakfast newspapers are re-read all day) that just isn’t so.
“When newspapers suddenly disappear for four days at a time it’s not surprising that people turn to their televisions, tablets and mobile phones for information. ”
The upmarket national Daily Graphic is a case in point: it has recently junked its influential page of Letters to the Editor, explaining that the opportunity to comment on stories in the Graphic is still available on the newspaper’s website. And leaving some of its faithful readers fuming.
“Have you ever seen an online comments column that carried anything other than ill-thought-out ripostes and plain bad language?” asks Gideon, one of my son’s friends and a local lawyer and politician. “The readers’ letters in the Graphic were written by intelligent people, often in responsible positions, making sensible points on matters of the moment.
“The best stuff in the paper was often a fiery letter from an angry reader. You won’t see THAT online!”
Ghana is a country which happily observes some of the habits of its British colonial past: gentlemen still wear vests, for example, and will often carry TWO linen handkerchiefs, the second to be made available for a tearful lady.
If its print media would have similarly regard for the historic traditions of the British press it might stand a better chance of avoiding the dismal future we all seem likely to embrace.