Ten years ago, an ambitious and daring Giles Muhame started an online platform at Makerere University. The platform’s main idea was to bring news in real-time. Initially, the online platform was not popular as the audience was still rigid, preferring traditional modes of news consumption such as radio, print, and television.
It took time for the audience to begin appreciating real-time news at Chimpreports.com As the use of smartphones grew, so did the need to access information. More and more young people were accessing news online. Muhame describes the phenomenon as “agookya”, loosely translated from Luganda as “hot trendy news.”
He thinks there is room for news niche in tourism, agriculture, climate change, and gender. That notwithstanding, he thinks, Ugandans, like Kenyans, are still so much obsessed with politics, a phenomenon Muhame believes should change. He narrates his company’s journey to MiC in this exclusive interview with Andrew Arinaitwe.
What inspired you to start an online news agency known as Chimpreports?
We were at the university, at Makerere, and there was no alternative online source of news in the country that was regularly updated. Instead, one had to wait for news at the top of the hour or television news in the evening. We said we could not live in a society like this. It was really frustrating, and we had to do something about it. Imagine something has happened and you have to wait, like a press conference happening at 9 am, and you wait until evening for the news. We could not live in a world like that. It was totally unacceptable.
Which year was that?
That was in 2011.
So you started this individually or with a group of friends?
I had the idea, and then I worked with my colleagues, who are now my partners, to develop a platform that could have news as it happens. We didn’t have enough money, so I used to work from the computer laboratory of the ICT faculty at Makerere University.
Was this the structure Prof. Venasius Baryamureeba(Ugandan scholar) erected?
Yes, but I didn’t have the money to buy a laptop and data. So we started with the available computers and the internet that was there at the time. After setting up the site, we happened to have had friends who helped give us free content to put but struggled. After a year, we got our first adverts.
Was that in 2012?
Yes, and we could buy computers and pay rent and got a few reporters we could afford to pay. Then we created more departments like marketing because, without revenue, you cannot run a newsroom. The advertising revenue at the time added a lot of value. I remember if you had Ushs5 million (USD1,388), you could do a lot of things. Ushs5 million was too much money then. Even if you gave a reporter Uss10,000 (USD 2.7) to get you a story, it was still enough money. We still had taxis charging as low as Ush500 (USD 0.13), from Makerere to the city centre, now things have changed. From then on we grew steadily and had to ensure our revenues were well managed. We also had to consolidate our editorial team to be strong enough because I remember at that time I went to Congo to cover the conflict.
So you flew there to cover the story?
No, I jumped onto a bus and went to cover the M23 conflict. We were very ambitious and reckless. We had nothing to lose. We didn’t fear anything, really. So after strengthening the advertising team and the people who managed the finances and our section of the editors and the writers, we now had to deal with issues of credibility because people looked down on online platforms. There were a lot of lies and so on. We were working under a very tough terrain, but we were optimistic that as time went by people would understand where the world was heading to.
I remember times when we would find the landlord had locked us out because we had not paid rent, and then we would negotiate.
But since then, you’ve made huge growth, right?
Yes, if you look at our entire workforce, it’s about 22, covering finance, marketing, editorial, and marketing.
Haven’t your financial obligations grown since you ventured into this, seeing you have to manage a 24-hour news channel?
We are now concentrating on strategy, consolidation of friendships, news sources. We are concentrating on expanding the business, diversification of revenue streams. You always need a bird’s view of an organisation that you head – if you’re so interested in the nitty gritty of things – so you also become part and parcel of the group but if you don’t, some things will go wrong and you will not realise.
What could you pinpoint as some of the challenges as you mark close to 10 years since your establishment?
Challenge number one was the issue of credibility. People didn’t think one can come up with something like that. An online platform, and then convince people to read! Trust issue was huge as people seemed to trust what ran on legacy media more.
What kind of content do you focus on to attract readers?
We focus on current affairs, news as it happens like “Agookya”, meaning ‘hot news’, that’s where our focus is, whether it’s politics or entertainment. As long as it happens, we are quick on our feet. We have tried to maintain that niche. As time goes by, we have realised you can break a story, but if you’re not careful, it can break you too. We are now thinking: do we need to continue participating in a “clicks arms race”? Having said that, our niche is current news and investigative reporting. You know we broke the story of the handshake.
The one about oil?
Yes, about Uganda Revenue Authority. It’s still the biggest story in the last ten years. I have not seen a story which has had such an impact. It made Parliament take up the matter, people being quizzed and so on.
How many views did the story generate?
I don’t know, but it was over a million views.
On average, how many views do you get on your page?
The best way to measure is monthly, which is about 900,000 views. On a good day, we can also hit a million views. So it depends on the prevailing situation.
What kind of revenue-generating model are you using as Chimpreports?
Of course, advertising is the main source of revenue, but we are trying to diversify, to go into events, do activations, do branding, media-related activities and also subscription so that we don’t entirely depend on advertisers. What people don’t know is that a media house is like any other business. It has to run on systems. You have to look at finance, capacity development, and human resource development.
When do Ugandans consume news online?
It’s mainly in the morning, at 11 am, then at 1 pm, then at 5 pm and later at around 8 pm, and it’s mainly through smartphones.
How about weekends?
Weekends are always good, but most people always prefer light content.
Does digital journalism in Uganda have space to grow as a sustainable source of revenue?
Yes, if you have a niche, why not? For example, no one is reporting on agriculture. I have not seen a website dedicated to health reporting. If you look at tourism, where are the sites dedicated to it? There are so many things; gender, sexual violence, climate change. People are obsessed with political news, but if they decide to develop their niche, I think people can do better. There is still plenty of space.
Can we say the social media tax has affected readership?
I really need to study that one, but I know that people can go on social media and not necessarily read your news. People can see the title of the story on the social media page and comment on a headline and go away.
Without necessarily clicking to open the content or page?
Exactly. Because you find some people have one million followers on Facebook, but when it comes to reading straight content from the news site, you find the traffic is negligible, it is miserable. I don’t think there is a big correlation between social media following and news content. I follow many pages, but I never read those sites.
Where do you see the future of journalism?
The future is video. The guys who will be able to do good video will carry the day. But also media houses that invest in research. The world is changing. People no longer want “small” stories which can be found everywhere. Media that invests on in-depth content, visuals for people to understand, do maps for people in case of accidents – to direct traffic – to show people that you can use this road instead of going where the accident is. People who are able to do such impactful journalism or do such good content. I am optimistic that people who produce good video content will be able to rise and shine.
Are the newsrooms sustainable with shrinking advertising?
I’m wondering what would a news reporter be doing in the newsroom in the next five years. It’s going to be interesting because you will not need to be in a newsroom. You can call your supervisor, who briefs you on your assignment and where a follow-up is needed. This is better than driving through traffic wasting energy and time to attend an editorial meeting physically. Managers and editors would rather stick to Zoom meetings and get things done.
Finally, how has the pandemic affected your business and operations?
Of course, it affects the revenues. Some clients are affected, so they have to reduce their budgets or postpone spending. So it directly affects our revenue streams. So we had to suspend the subscription because we were in the middle of the pandemic, and we really had to be human. It disrupts you in terms of work, revenue and so on. It gets difficult, but you have to make sure people survive.
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