Of the under-pressure media sector in Ethiopia, private press is perhaps enduring the highest burden—constantly increasing rates by printers. This expense, which takes up half of Ethiopian periodicals’ annual outlays, persists in an overall rough environment where distributors are cartel-like and government is not the friendliest. Add to this encroachment by cheaply produced digital news and reduced advertising activity, private weeklies and monthlies in Ethiopia are an endangered species. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale looks into the company’s parent industry where solutions are found in better local pulp and paper production, in-house printing and distribution, and better-quality journalism.
Mesfin Lemma, Finance Manager at Champion Communications, was not surprised to receive the latest price adjustment. “Print houses are frequently increasing rates especially in recent years. It has almost become natural now.” His company is the publisher of the Amharic language Addis Maleda weekly newspaper and monthly magazine, as well as Ethiopian Business Review (EBR).
The latest price adjustment in August increased EBR’s total printing costs by 18Pct and by 16pct for Addis Maleda newspaper. At this point, printing expenses indulge half of the publisher’s total annual expenses.
The price of printing a 64-page EBR issue has increased from ETB22 in 2016 to above ETB50 currently, excluding the latest price hike. In the same five-year period, the cover price of the English monthly only grew from ETB30 to 40. Similarly, Addis Maleda newspaper now costs ETB28 to print, an increase from ETB25 last year while its cover price has been constant at ETB10. Further, “advertisement revenue has been declining since Covid-19,” added Mesfin.
The cost of publishing content is cheaper than broadcasting. Yet, in this digital age, posting is the cheapest. The pressure of printing house expenses remains a nightmare for the industry where the oldest private press is three decades old.
“Print expense takes up ETB30 million annually. We usually print the papers on the weekends and during the night and for this reason printers charge double. For us, this extreme expenditure is the major challenge of our work. We pay ETB35 to print a single copy but sell the newspaper for ETB15. We balance it out with revenue from ads. Print cost is high in Ethiopia because of high taxes levied on paper imports,” said Endalkachew Yimam, Marketing Manager at Media and Communications Center (MCC), publisher of The Reporter newspapers.
Even though there are over 230 private printing houses in Addis Ababa, only the state-owned Berhanena Selam has constant access to paper, mainly because it prints state-owned newspapers including Ethiopian Herald and Addis Zemen. Yet even the large parastatal itself has been frequently adjusting prices in recent years. Private printers and paper importers usually only manage to import once or twice in a year. Most of the private printing houses are also afraid to print newspapers in fear of government retaliation.
Endalkachew says that printing at Berhanena Selam has advantages. “Our revenue drastically shrunk during the pandemic to the point where we were unable to pay for printing. However, they did us a favor by patiently waiting for three months to settle overdues. Private printing houses might not wait that long and some even request down payments.”
Frehiwot Hailu, Marketing Manager at Capital newspaper, states that up-front payments for printing is heavily damaging. “We usually pay upfront. Then the print house does not care about the print quality.”
The high print expense is the major reason why none of the private press players in Ethiopia have not been able to increase their circulation beyond 10,000 copies, with the vast majority of circulation only in Addis Ababa. Experts advise that publishers should print copies in regional towns instead of distributing from Addis Ababa. Another feature of the industry is that there are no private daily prints, mainly owing to constraints at printers that are not time sensitive enough for the purpose.
“If EBR or Addis Maleda was to increase the number of copies by tenfold, we would literally shutdown in two months’ time. This is not because there is no reader or demand, but rather because the paper cannot reach the reader. Print media is neither obsolete nor outdated, not at this moment. The distribution channels of print media in Ethiopia have been hijacked. Private papers are not leaving Addis Ababa because distributors do not permit it. We recently started Addis Maleda in Afan Oromo and Somali languages. But we are conducting distribution works to regional cities by ourselves because distributors are not willing. Our product is especially demanded in Adama and Bahir Dar, but there are no copies there,” says Tamirat Astatkie, General Manager of Champion Communications.
Despite growing demand, paper supply—both imported and locally manufactured—has declined from the record-high of 238,737 metric tons in 2009/10 to a low of 138,210 metric tons in 2019/20, according to a National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE) report. Consequentially, import values have skyrocketed from ETB1.2 billion to ETB4.3 billion, even with decreased volumes. The dependence on imported paper persists as domestic investment in pulp manufacturing remains nascent.
“Ethiopia may be the only country with weekly papers but no private dailies. Other nations even have night papers. The Ethiopian print industry is almost nonexistent,” says Yohannes Anberbir, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at The Reporter.
Samson Berhane, Editor-in-Chief at the English weekly Fortune, agrees. “The reason print media cannot increase circulation is due to the extremely high cost of printing. If the media house increases circulation, its print expense will rise but advertisement revenue will stay the same. Whether 1,000 copies or 10,000 copies are printed, the advertiser pays the same. In this situation, every copy incurs additional loss. So, media must develop capacity to increase circulation. It must grow its subscribers as well as advertisers, and reduce distribution, warehousing, and transportation costs.”
Yohannes says the root cause of exorbitant printing outlays is government’s intentions of wanting to suffocate free press by monopolizing and taxing media factors like paper and printers. “If the private press is really free, they should have been encouraged to have their own printing houses. However, because government fears the independency and self-sufficiency of print media, they will do everything to make sure we do not own our printing. The lack of a supportive policy environment has a domino effect everywhere in the media sphere. Thus, most media in Ethiopia are occupied by survival issues, which in turn pushes them to compromise on their editorial integrity. This leads to a shift away from selling content to selling ads and thus, falling under the influence of advertisers,” says Yohannes.
In a bid to end the hassle, MCC tried to install its own printing house fifteen years ago. “We were given a plot of land in Dukem and imported machines. However, the project failed when issues related to the piece of land were raised. We are still trying. If we could own our own printing house, we could reduce printing costs by 60Pct from our current outlays. We could also generate additional revenue by printing for others,” said Endalkachew, adding that The Reporter plans to begin daily papers, write in different languages, and increase circulation if it manages to establish its own printing outfit.
Mesfin says that Champion Communications has also been trying to install its own printing house. “If we had our own, we could introduce morning or evening newspapers. Yet still, access to paper is problematic. Either government must allow us to import paper duty-free at any time or the local paper and pulp industry must emerge to substitute imports. Otherwise, investing in printing houses alone is not viable.”
If the frequent increment in printing charges continues, newspapers and magazines must follow by raising their cover prices, which could discourage the reader and eventually culminate in reader discontent and an acceleration of declining readership and an emergency upon the printed media era.
“If print expenses are beyond the holding capacity of the media house, it will affect the organization’s freedom and even survival. It is indirect censorship. Ethiopia’s print media are not covering regional issues and have no circulation even in neighboring Horn of Africa nations.” says Solomon Goshu, Program Officer at International Media Support (IMS), a Danish media reform organization. “Print media might survive for only the next decade, if it fails to deliver in-depth analysis more frequently. Government must provide support for media, which was totally crippled by the previous regime. Print media is not just an alternative media, but a pillar of democratization.” EBR
9th Year • September 2021 • No. 100