Newspaper business was once profitable in The Gambia. This was before the advent of the social media. The biggest chunk of newspaper revenue comes from advertisement and there were advertisements all the time. The other chunk of revenue is from physical newspaper sales and people were buying as if their lives depended upon copies of newspapers.
Today, the media landscape is completely different especially with the emergence of the social media. Advertisement has fallen off a cliff partly because many of the companies and institutions well known for patronizing newspapers by giving them adverts in the past, have now turned to the social media and digital media to advertise their products and services. Public audience has also eroded, accelerating the pressure on newspapers and washing away their profitability.
Pape Saine, a veteran journalist and co-publisher of The Point newspaper has presided over both eras of newspaper business in The Gambia. The Point, like many other local papers, is struggling financially. And he has pointed fingers at the government for part of the paper’s problem.
“The Government doesn’t pay for its advertisements on time. It takes from six months to one year before we receive our money from government agencies for their adverts we run.”
Mr. Saine also lamented high taxes levied on the print media industry, and heavy import duty placed on printing materials, describing them as economic stranglehold for print media houses.
“Every year, we pay D100, 000 dalasi and at least D20, 000 for newsprint, for printing materials and cash power. It’s very hard,” he said.
Last year, another journalist, Babucarr Ceesay registered Liberty Media Company Ltd to publish a new paper, The Monitor. His aim was to use the new publication to ‘revolutionize journalism’ in the country.
But after just five publications, The Monitor halted printing due to series of challenges including high printing cost and taxes.
He now wants the Gambia Revenue Authority (GRA) to review its tax system, in consultation with media owners “as way to promote media pluralism and sustainability of media houses”.
“The authorities should step in to reduce the taxes levied on materials like newsprint to ease the burden on the publishers. If Thomas Jefferson can prefer newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers as far back as in 1787, what should our authorities in the 21st Century think?”
Lamin Jahateh, a business journalist with Reuters blamed the print media companies for not being able to tap into revenue streams beyond advertising and circulation.
“For me the biggest threat is that the newspapers depend on ad revenue as the main source of income and the fact that the Gambian ad market is very small and the cost of ad so cheap, compared to other countries in the sub-region, makes the situation terrible”, he said.
The local media houses are constrained by undue tax burden, ranging from newspaper sales tax and education tax to advertising sales tax and income/value added tax.
Meanwhile, the government has lifted the national education levy on the print media, exempting print media companies from paying the National Education and Technical Levy (NETT).
The Secretary General of the Gambia Press Union, Saikou Jammeh described this development as an important first step towards ensuring that the media outlets are economically vibrant.
A Gambia without newspapers was a once unimaginable scenario. But that was then. If the current collapse of advertising continues, it is safe to say that newspapers will die in slow motion, unless they innovate new business models to survive.