East Africa

The Making of Uganda’s most hated and liked Media Empire – The Red Pepper

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On June 19th 2001, a group of seven young enthusiastic  entrepreneurs set out to establish Uganda’s first ever tabloid. Deliberately mirroring the style of other tabloids in other countries, the paper that has from its first edition been known for its mix of sensationalism, scandal and a dose of nudity has changed the dynamics of society journalism.

From a measly 1000 copies printed at a downtown print shop on a weekly basis, the paper is now a media force to reckon with, circulating over 10,000 copies daily , including Sunday and is now the third highest circulation for daily newspapers after the market leaders The New Vision and Daily Monitor.

Red Pepper founders, L-R : Johnson Musinguzi, Arinaitwe Rugyendo, Patrick Mugumya, Richard Tusiime and James Mujuni

Thanks to the financial discipline, ingenuity, innovation and the “never give up” attitude of these free thinking media “investors”, the paper has since celebrated its 10th anniversary and added on their cache of publications two sister papers, Kamunye a Luganda daily and Entatsi a Runyakitara weekly, complete with their own full color printing press valued at over US$200,000.

Having set up at a time when a number of publications had failed to live to see their second birthday, a number of critics dismissed this tabloid project as untenable. Matters were not made better by the fact that the average Ugandan reader was a moralist, who didn’t want to be seen reading this ‘unholy’ stuff. Add this to the poor reading culture and the Red Pepper project was bound to fail.

But how wrong they were! The paper was initially started by 7 partners. Two of them have since fallen out leaving only five. Richard Tusiime is currently the Managing Director and Executive Chairman while Arinaitwe Rugyendo is the Director in charge of marketing and digital media. James Mujuni handles business development while his brother, Patrick Mugumya is the Operations Director.

Johnson Musinguzi is charged with finances and administration. Although not exactly related by blood, apart from Mujuni and Mugumya who are blood brothers, the five run the business as though it was a family establishment. In fact, many of the other senior positions at the company have been filled with relatives in what many analysts believe is a unique governance model.

Armed with experience from previous media exploits, the team set about at working on their dream. Tusiime was formerly an Editor at Orumuri- a Vision Group Runyakitara weekly based in Mbarara, Mujuni was the New Vision correspondent for Mbarara, while Rugyendo was a reporter for Daily Monitor. Mugumya had worked with New Vision and another newspaper in Rwanda and Musinguzi on the other hand had cut his teeth in broadcast media on Radio West, a leading radio station in Western Uganda.

Having been in the mainstream ‘serious’ media, they thought it wise to walk the unbeaten path of tabloid journalism. “We were journalists and had experience in the media and we knew the other papers were strong in their niches. The only niche that was untapped was the tabloid. As you may have realized the competition has since tweaked their coverage to look tabloidish. Because that is the winning formula. Tabloids are more pro people and sell more copies than the so called serious newspapers,” says Patrick Mugumya.

“We had no real startup capital and no place to sleep except our dungeon office at Makerere Kavule. “In effect, ours was probably the first Ugandan newspaper to have started off and operated from a slum area. That should tell you, in summary, the story of Red Pepper.- It is a story of modest humble beginnings but dotted with resolve, perseverance, resilience and focus. I am so happy to have been part of this great down to earth team, which set out to shed off all pretences, moved into the trenches with minimal tools and stayed right there,” said Arinaitwe Rugyendo in an earlier interview with The CEO Magazine.

In-fact, since the launch of Red Pepper, the Ugandan market has since had over five Red Pepper like publications which have since folded. With the exception of the Vision Group owned Kampala Sun which celebrated its first anniversary last December, the others like The Razor, The Rolling Stone, The Weekender and The Evening Mail never survived to even see their first anniversary.

Even then Vision Group’s Kampala Sun was a second attempt, following the folding of The Sun, which was largely seen as the English version of Bukedde, the Luganda tabloid also run by Vision Group. If Ugandans love gossip and tabloids, why then did these other papers fold?

There surely ought to have been another ingredient that made Red Pepper stand out. According to Dr Innocent Nahabwe, Red Pepper’s first marketing manager, who has since moved on to form his own IT and hospitality business empire, the uniqueness of the news that Red Pepper offered, made it easier to sell to the once closed society.

“The Red Pepper had a pioneer brand position in the minds of the consumer in its own niche market. Just like Xerox was the first plain paper copier, Fedex was the first overnight courier company, Red Pepper identified a unique niche that satisfied the reading needs of a growing market segment of young adults. These were people that didn’t find the existing papers at the time relevant to their lifestyle and aspirations. Red Pepper provided an alternative, creating a new group of young readers, mostly those that found politics boring”.

Infact, according to Steadman Research, in 2001 when the Red Pepper came to the market, 6,300 new readers were created. According to Dr Nahabwe it is these unique readers that are responsible for the strength of Red Pepper.

“Being well differentiated gave the paper an edge that saw its market share, circulation and readership grow so fast. Its style of writing that emphasized short stories, lots of pictures allowed even those that really hated reading to have a newspaper they could read. Advertisers naturally buy readership and there was proven readership. Every office had a copy which had been shared by 10 to 20 people a day”, he reminisces adding: “Much as Red Pepper was sure of the copy sales, readership and wide circulation, corporates at first were afraid of advertising but some daring agencies like Moringa Ogilvy got the courage to come through with the tactical campaigns. When they were hugely successful yet they had only been advertised in the Red Pepper, the competing brands then came running to book space and like the say, the rest is history.”

Rough Road to success

According to Mugumya, the biggest setback to the Red Pepper was not lack of money and enough resources but rather, a strong resistance from the “cowardly Ugandan readers who upheld moral values at the highest level and considered the weekly paper too explicit for their consumption.” The paper kicked off with a string of exclusive but shocking sleazy stories.

High school kids in compromising situations during beach parties and celebrities being photographed off guard; this was unprecedented in Ugandan photojournalism. Law makers went up in arms against a new paper “selling sex” to minors yet some circles defended the publications as an eye opener to the evils of society, recklessness of some parents and teachers plus the westernization of Ugandan culture.

In fact it is well known that the first readers of the Red Pepper were so embarrassed to buy the paper openly off the streets and even after purchase, they would only read the paper after inserting it as an inner in the other accepted dailies. But the Red Pepper has maintained that they are not a morally decadent paper, but rather a paper that was launched to fight moral decadence that was prevalent at the time and in so doing, make a buck for themselves.

“When we launched the campaign against moral decay in society shortly after we had started, many in government misunderstood the stories and claimed some of the pictures were pornographic. But we knew that they weren’t and when they took us to court we defended ourselves and won”.

“They took us to court, to Parliament and to State House and wanted us shut down. But we defended ourselves strongly and won. We knew that to tackle such a problem one had to publish things that had never been published and we are happy the larger public responded by supporting us. It’s humbling in a good way today to see the guys who fought us back then, the pastors, and many MPs and ministers and civil society bodies, supporting us today. It points to the fact that along the way they have understood that the Red Pepper isn’t around to destroy Uganda but to help Uganda become a better society,” intimates Mugumya.

He adds: “We also had problems with many in the intelligence community in Uganda, the spies and the operatives who thought that our exclusives were intrusive and a danger to the stability of the state and the government. Some elements torched our printing press but we put out the fire in time and kept on publishing.”

To Rugyendo, the last 11 years of their continued existence has everything to do with a clear vision, luck and foresightedness that is manifested in the way they started and continue to soldier on. He says that the Red Pepper business model is based on Unity of Purpose.

“It was able to survive all the impediments thrown at its path not because of its sheer good luck but the founders’ display of unity, resilience, selflessness and the will to succeed. We understood that for any business to grow to posterity, you do not need big ideas and big money. We needed small and effective ideas plus frugality and trust,” he said in an earlier interview.

According to Mugumya, “Failure is not an option at Red Pepper. 11 years is short time, we want this project to outlast all of us who started it,” he says adding: “We work hard like anyone else. We try to predict the future and we try to have a product that readers want. It is not easy to work hard every day and its not easy to get your projections about the future right and its not simple having a product that resonated with readers. But such is life and everyday is a challenge and we have been blessed to overcome this challenge everyday for the last 11 years. We hope to keep going forward.”

Red Pepper’s creativeness in terms of delivery of news that includes colourful pictures of society events and sensational news on issues that affect society on a daily basis like graft, homosexuality, scandal, drama has helped create a niche of die-hard readers who are willing to pay 500/= extra, seeing that the paper sells at 2,000/= while the other dailies retail at 1500/=.

Besides that, advertisers too have recognised the paper’s growing inter-class readership and are confidently running their advertising with the paper to tap into that market, making a huge boost in the paper’s revenues. The end justifies the means From just a handful of loyal workers, with just two computers housed in a two roomed out of town office at Kavule-Makerere, their resilience has since paid off seeing that the paper now has a permanent home at Namanve-15km out of Kampala complete with built up structures housing their printery, offices for administration, editorial and marketing.

The staff numbers too have grown to about 260 directly employed staff and hundreds indirectly employed like newspaper vendors and agents who earn a living selling our products. Although their turn-over is still top secret, random off the hook calculations on the number of copies sold daily and the look at paid ads running, it is easy to assume that the income of the paper is in the range of over Ushs1 billion per month.

Now this isn’t your usual mid-sized company turn-over, but an astounding success story owing to the fact that most Ugandan start-ups of that nature never grow to even sail through their first three years. But for the Red Pepper, like it is usually said for businesses that have taken off, nothing can stop them now. Building from that success story, the directors still believe there is a lot more they can achieve and have their eyes set on other projects.

“We have lots of plans. We will soon launch our TV channel. We believe television is a medium where we can make a fundamental impact”. It is the very reason that the directors who from the start combined all roles from writing, editing, circulation and marketing have since taken more back seat advisory roles relinquishing the reigns of their company into the hands of trusted, experienced and dedicated workers.

For these young men who dreamed and succeeded, the sky can only be the limit. Hated and loved in equal measure In a space of 11 years, Rugyendo says, it’s amazing to note that almost every media house in the country has an employee who started his or her career at Red Pepper.

Indeed, he adds, the company has created over 5,000 new jobs directly and indirectly in Uganda and in the region. Rugyendo believes its contribution to the well being of Ugandans and its exclusive news prompted readers to vote it the Best Newspaper of the Year 2010 under Kampala City Traders Association’s (KACITA) Quality Awards. The Uganda Police has also previously recognized the paper for breaking and highlighting crime stories.

The paper also has to walk the tight rope of telling the truth without jeopardizing national security, slamming sloppy companies without alienating advertisers. Yet this isn’t always easy. In the process of creating friends, some enemies also have to be created. In fact the newspaper got a bitter taste of hate on the night of 29th June 2008 when its production house was burnt down purportedly by renegade security operatives.

But what is important now, Rugyendo says, is for everyone to appreciate the contribution of a free press. “A free press can be regarded as contributing to the creation of a stable society through its ability to exercise critical scrutiny of government institutions and their conduct and competence in implementing national development programmes”.

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