Monday, 10 March 2014 16:21

Eunice Mathu: Kenya’s sole surviving female media owner

Written by Jane Godia

If anyone has the authority to speak media ownership on the Kenyan market, it is Eunice Mathu. Her magazine, Parents, hit the vendors’ rack in July 1986. That’s 332 editions as at March 2014. The print run for the launch edition was 25,000 — and a sell-out, marking the beginning of a journey that has seen her make an indelible mark in the media industry.

Long gone are the days when Parents was a 32-page black and white production. These days, it puts out some 80 pages or so. But one thing remains consistent: the cover belongs to regular Kenyan couples and their children.  

 It is a complex mix of human interest stories, profiles — and the sex word, once considered too crude to be read out aloud in the Press, is never too far away in the cocktail of stories listed on the cover, though some might prefer to think of it in the more genteel term “reproductive health”. About 20 couples reportedly request to be put on the cover each month. 

Recognition

The formula has earned her the reputation of favourite aunt, and many of her readers will stop her in the streets with a word of greeting. “Often, they will call out and say, “Are you not Eunice of Parents magazine?” she says with the smile of a woman who does not go out of her way to court publicity.

{jb_quoteright}“It’s only responsible media that are not partisan that can change the direction this country is taking. If we are partisan, the trust that the public has placed on us is abused.

- Eunice Mathu, Media Owner {/jb_quoteright}

Mathu’s achievement is made all the more remarkable when you consider that some of the magazines that have come and gone have been pretty powerful and influential. They include the Weekly Review, the political analysis publication that was a runaway success in its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, and the women’s premier publication Viva, which put cookery and the political story together in one powerful package in the 1980s, and was the forerunner of the very gracious Eve and Lady.

Despite tough competition from the East African Magazines stable of society magazines — which includes True Love, Drum, Adam and latest entry Move — Eunice Mathu’s professional baby continues to hold its own with circulation figures of up to 40,000 and a readership of 6.5 million, according to Steadman reports. 

Market

 

The Kenyan market has long been perceived to be a graveyard of magazines, many of which come and go without so much as a whimper in the absence of long-term investment prospects such as those offered by the South African connection that the East African Magazines stable enjoys. What, then, is Mathu’s secret to success?

The answer is slow and considered: “Parents was not the first magazine that I had engaged in. I started publishing a consumer publication known as Consumers Digest in 1984. However, Consumers Digest failed to make inroads because at the time Kenyans were not into consumerism. Circulation was slow and business was difficult if you were going to go to the same advertisers for two publications.”

She eventually opted to put Consumers Digest to sleep and stayed with the family theme, which “lacked a proper read” in her opinion. She then thought of throwing profiles into the mix, which would provide a platform where people would talk about their lives, marriage and sex—subjects that nobody wanted to talk about even though they were topics that touched on daily lives.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Mathu decided she would venture into this maiden territory. This, she believes, is why Parents edged out Consumers Digest and continues to enjoy a readership base that grows by the day.  “Despite competition being out there, with big players coming in from outside the country with big cash which we don’t have, we have continued to move on steadily,” Mathu says.

She is aware of the challenges that come with publishing and changing trends. “Because of technology, people are no longer reading hard copy and most have reverted to the Internet.

This has led to newspaper readership going down and alternative media taking over.” 

Stability

“The nature of the magazine is to strengthen families and that is why we are cautious about the price, otherwise the minimum price that the magazine should be selling would be in the range of KSh400.” 

Mathu’s business has remained steady even in turbulent times. But even good old Parents was hard-hit in the chaos following last year’s post-election violence. “We lost ground in Eldoret and Kisumu when vendors moved off the streets. Many of the old vendors are no longer there in these two towns, and this has affected the market,” she says.

In Nairobi, vendors are often harassed by city council officials and this has also affected sales. Says Mathu: “Casual vendors who would otherwise assist with sales on the first few days that the magazine hits the market are no longer there.” 

Nevertheless, she remains confident. “Parents is well grounded and able to cope,” she says, not unduly shaken by the challenge of a growing pool of competition and new media. “Emerging media is made up of lifestyle journalists, but is it giving us any role models? Are these magazines real?” 
When she started out, the print media was a two-horse race, with only two newspapers, the Standard and Nation. There were also very few people in the media. She adds: “Now there is so much media. It’s difficult fighting for that same cake with over 70 radio stations, so many magazines, newspapers and TV stations. The media industry is too wide for readers and advertisers.” 

Challenge

The rise and rise of lifestyle magazines does not pose a major challenge to her, even though they are popular among young people who aspire to the life depicted in the magazines. “The lifestyle magazines give the impression that every Kenyan is rich, yet most Kenyans are poor,” she argues.

“This is what makes all these magazines different from Parents, which is read all over the country, including areas where no other publications reach, and is for people raising families.” 

Mathu, who is a founder member of the Media Owners Association and the Association of Media Women in Kenya, adds: “If I want a lifestyle magazine, there a many international titles that are on the magazine racks. Already, this market is exposed to so many other sources of information.” 

Indeed, she confides, she has registered many titles but will not be launching any other magazine soon because she reckons the market is too crowded while the advertising base remains the same. She adds: “It is a question of giving readers what they want without appearing to be duplicating. Already there are so many magazines in the market from out of the country and people are spoilt for choice. The issue of sustainability is major here. We have seen many magazines launched and unfold within a very short time.” 

What Kenya needs, she adds, is responsible journalism that encourages Kenyans, not partisan journalism. “It’s only responsible media that are not partisan that can change the direction this country is taking. If we are partisan, the trust that the public has placed on us is abused. The fact that the media are trusted and powerful should not be abused. Tell the truth without colouring it.”

Domination

The fact that boardrooms are male-dominated also concerns Mathu. “Our main newsrooms have been unfriendly to women, barring them from reaching the top echelons. Most women who would have gone up have been edged out. We need women at the top with responsibilities.” 
Mathu the businesswoman is concerned that women who have started media organisations have pulled out and taken other directions—the most recent examples being Sheila Amdany  of Radio Simba and Rose Kimotho of  Kameme fame.

But women also do not help their case when they fail to map out their career path to rise to the top. “Women must fight for their position,” she adds. “Know what you want and be patient enough to make sure you get it.”  


This article was originally published in Inspiring Change, a special issue of the Kenyan Woman for International Women's Day 2014

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