The newspaper has shown remarkable ability to innovate, surviving governments and ownership changes to publish uninterrupted for 116 years, attributes that will serve it well in the age of digital disruption
“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, but this line actually created a country” — (Sir Charles Eliot, Commissioner for British East Africa, 1900-1904)
It is not uncommon for the British to transform even the most mundane of occurrences into lofty historical epochs, but the colonial administrator who oversaw the construction of the last phase of the Kenya-Uganda railway at the turn of the last century, surely had the sense of occasion.
For this was a truly transformational moment — in both negative and positive ways. On the one hand, the rail cut through Kenya’s hinterland, dismembering communities and their ways of life, defying local resistance, from the shores of the Indian Ocean, to the highlands in the Rift Valley.
On the other, the Iron Snake, as some ancient seers had presaged the railway line, created something new: a tapestry of townships hewn from the train stations, kneading a beadwork that formed modern Kenya.
What’s seldom acknowledged is how the railway line also helped pave the way for Kenyan journalism, and how that invention has continued to shape and reshape journalism over the past 100 years.
Given the technological disruptions that continue to roil the media sector, the evolution of The Standard proffers useful lessons on how local journalism can survive and thrive in the 21st century.
Right from the start, The Standard was a colonial construct, the British coat-of-arms adorning its masthead “until the morning of independence on December 12, 1963,” as historian Frank Barton observed.
And in the first 60 years of its life, the newspaper was “a typical European people’s paper concerned with the happenings in Britain and urging subservience to the settlers,” as Absalom Mutere and John Baptist Abuogo put it in The History of the Press in Kenya.
The paper’s foreign ownership and editorship — the first African editors took the helm in the 1970s — further compounded the paper’s complex legacy, as it fostered the now entrenched notion of “othering” in media discourse.
This means the story of Kenya, and Africa, by extension, has been seen through the eyes of outsiders. Media scholar Van Ginneken ponders this question in his book, Understanding Global News and concludes: “The mediation [by Western media of Third World news] implicitly uses our way of life and our own values against which to measure the way of life of others.”
Proponents of this view add, rather persuasively, that the idea of Kenyan journalism is a misnomer as it was an off-shoot of London’s Fleet Street, from where British editors were imported to lay the foundation of The Standard and its main competitor, the Nation.
Their footprints can be found further afield as generations of those trained under these two stables continue to serve the larger media spectrum in Kenya and beyond.
Put another way, there has been no cultivation of a homegrown media that allows a flourishing of news values that are Kenya-centric and European and American business models continue to this day.
Unsurprisingly, media disruptions in Western Europe and North America have had reverberations in Kenya and the region, even though a unique set of circumstances obtain here.
Still, The Standard remains an interesting experiment. It survived two World Wars, Kenya’s liberation struggle, transition to independence and, ultimately, transition to multiparty democracy and marched into the new century.
As a newspaper of record, it has run an uninterrupted 116 years — and 100 years since its incorporation — surviving governments, management changes, rebranding and redesigns, while making inroads in other media to expand its remit.
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In this new century, The Standard has demonstrated remarkable character to innovate and surmount technological disruptions that continue to roil the industry.
To appreciate this journey and the paper’s multiple transformations, let’s start from the beginning, and the good tidings that the new rail heralded to inaugurate Kenyan journalism.
The year was 1902. Place: Mombasa. A Parsee migrant AM Jeevanjee —now memorialised in Nairobi’s park by the same name — was fresh from his trade expeditions, supplying the railway construction.
He had made a tidy fortune and was looking for new opportunities to invest. This vision came to pass on November 15, 1902, when, with Englishman W.H. Tiller at the helm, the weekly African Standard was launched. Tiller’s was a one-man show, serving as reporter, editor, proof-reader and ultimately production editor.
Although Tiller was said to be a gifted journalist with a strong sense of independence — he criticised the British Foreign Office that ran the colony — his future appeared bleak after Jeevanjee sold the outfit, in 1905, to the English pair, Messrs Anderson and Mayer, for the princely sum of 50 British pounds.
The paper was soon on the move, literally, when its production base shifted to Nairobi in 1910, where the colonial administration had moved its administrative headquartres.
Its new owners changed the paper’s name to East African Standard and expanded it to a daily edition, while enhancing its scope to cover the region, making inroads into Congo and present-day Uganda and Tanzania.
Such broadmindedness, linking events in a given region, also inadvertently gave credence to the assertion that The Standard was in the service of the Empire, and that its definition of news often related to Britain and its empire rather than what was happening locally.
In 1940, the inception of Baraza, a Swahili publication targeting African readership took this cooperation with the colonial government to a new keel. Elizabeth Wako Okeniyi, whose graduate thesis analysed this foreign influence on Kenyan newspapers from 1900 to 1980, observed:
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“World War II had broken out, and African support was needed. The aim of the African newspaper was to convince the Africans that their support was needed by the Allies. As a result, Baraza, a Swahili weekly, was published for the government by the East African Standard.
“Baraza was used by the government as a propaganda tool. It always printed the government view, which more often than not was opposed to the Black Nationalist view. During the 1940s, it wrote continually against the East African Trade Unions and their leadership even though it was in the interest of the African labourers to have trade unions…”
The crisis in the labour sector was further exacerbated by the return of the demobilised African soldiers who had acquired useful military skills, but were roaming idle without gainful employment. This was compounded by the settlement of British soldiers, whose generous pensions perks included acquisition of land dispossessed of Africans.
The year 1952 was a turning-point, both for the colony and the newspaper that had narrated its story for half a century: On October 21, 1952, the Standard acquiescence to the colonial authorities was reflected by its publication of Governor Evelyn Baring’s declaration of Emergency, full verbatim, on the front-page.
Recent historical texts have revealed the scale of the operation: virtually the entire population in Central Kenya, an estimated 1.5 million people, were placed in concentration camps, where torture and beatings continued for nine years, and about 20,000 hanged on very flimsy grounds.
A fuller view of those atrocities is contained in Caroline Elkin’s Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya and David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged.
The onset of the liberation struggle which, ironically, coincided with the Standard’s more progressive pronouncements, such as a rejection of ethnic or racial identity of its news subjects, unless their race or ethnicity had a bearing on the story, were set aside.
Although The Standard’s treatment of the African was described by Mutere and Abuoga as “smug to the point of arrogance” it was certainly less conservative than the regional newspapers that were strongly pro-settler.
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Come 1959, the wind of change was blowing. The leader of the Ismaili community, His Highness the Aga Khan, no doubt buoyed by the political developments in India and Ghana —two former British colonies that were newly independent — arrived in town to announce he was setting a newspaper to help articulate the African viewpoint.
This put pressure on the Standard though transition through independence in 1963 proved unencumbered. It was sold to Lonrho Africa in 1967, for more than one million sterling pounds. Ten years later, it was redesigned from a broadsheet to tabloid.
If the paper’s patronage of the colonial government helped it thrive over the first 70 years, its new owner’s strategy conflated business with politics. The paper’s board chairman during the vestiges of Jomo Kenyatta administration was his son-in-law Udi Gecaga; Kenyatta’s successor, President Daniel arap Moi, had his point man, Mark Too, appointed to chair the board.
But what made the Standard stand out, increasingly, during this decade of transition, was its bold coverage — such as the murder of populist politician Josiah Mwangi Kariuki in March 1975. The paper broke the news on March 12, after his body had been positively identified by his two widows and several MPs, while the Nation alleged the businessman had travelled to Zambia on business.
This precipitated a crisis of credibility that the paper took years to shake off.
A relaunch in 1995 rebranded the paper as the East African Standard and two years later, broke new ground when it launched the first private independent TV station in Kenya: KTN. Over the past two decades, the station has become the vanguard of Kenyan broadcast journalism, serving as the whetstone on which generations of journalists serving on the local scene and internationally, were developed.
Ten years ago, the Standard was relaunched with a unique feature: the Spanish flip that converts the sports on the back into another “front-page.” It also introduced a heavy dose of comments and analysis.
The Standard’s forays into broadcast market was fortified in 2010 with the launch of Radio Maisha, currently ranked number two countrywide, while its online presence continued to gain traction with readers in Kenya and abroad.
The inauguration of county administrations saw the newspaper group launch a weekly county newspaper, the County Weekly, but this quickly ran out of steam when it increased circulation to a bi-weekly, at a time that counties’ governance structures were still in formation.
The Standard’s contrarian spirit ensured its journalists would suffer an occasional censure from the State, but the attack on its I&M Building headquarters in March 2006 was unprecedented. Hooded policemen carted away its equipment, while KTN’s signal was switched off. Another contingent rushed to the Standard’s printing press on Likoni Road and razed the following day’s paper.
The motive for this attack remains unknown; then Minister for Internal Security, John Michuki, who admitted ordering the raid, took that secret to the grave.
The Standard remains admirably independent, able to manoeuvre entrepreneurial hoops to report unvarnished truths Kenya through its many epochs — from presidential transitions to promulgation of the new Constitution.
Recent strictures from the central government have come by way of the umbrella Government Advertising Agency, which dangles advertising business for pliant coverage.
The hardest transition for the media has been technological and the Standard has illustrated through the launch of the Nairobian, a tabloid with a heady dose of politics and gossip, that the golden age of the printing press is far from over.
So, the enterprise that Jeevanjee started at the turn of the last century remains on course, and the labours of its founding editor Tiller, the one-man show, has grown into a robust media house run by hundreds of journalists on multimedia platforms.
Dr Kimani, a former ‘Standard’ editor and columnist, teaches journalism at the Graduate School of Media and Communications, Aga Khan University. He’s the author of the historical novel, ‘Dance of the Jakaranda,’ a ‘New York Times’ Notable Book of the Year.
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