It’s a story many editors would not want to run. All together, all newspapers in Cameroon reach only 10 to 15 percent of potential readers. And, even that is shrinking.
Over the last five years, at least two of the country’s leading English language newspapers have shut down. Many more appear only occasionally on the stands. Publishers say the industry is barely surviving.
Problems include weak ad revenue, low circulation and poor editorial content. For the people in the streets, newspapers are just too expensive at $1 US. Many prefer to read freely off the newsstands. And, as in many Western countries, papers are struggling to find a business model that accommodates the internet – where readers can often read the latest news for free.
Francis Wache, executive editor of The Post newspaper, says the independent media’s precarious finances are eroding its impact in the country.
"If the media is free and not channeled," he says, "then you can be sure that there would be some easy flow of information… that will enable the public and our readership to take very enlightened choices about their own lives and about their own destiny."
Saving newspapers has been at the center of many formal and informal discussions. There is growing consensus in the sector that media stakeholders must now come up with urgent solutions.
The US sponsored a seminar in March to begin a serious conversation on media management and sustainability in Cameroon. David Applefield, the special representative for Africa at the Financial Times, was flown in to share his experience with about a dozen media representatives.
For a start, Applefield says Cameroon’s newspapers need to step up the amount of material they offer readers.
"The first problem in the media scene," he says, "is that there is not enough value for either the reader or the advertiser. So, you have to increase the amount of value and benefits and give people a real reason to need a newspaper every day."
Applefield proposes a number of radical solutions such as slashing cover prices and cutting in half advertising rates. He says both – when coupled with innovative content -- would increase circulation and attract more advertisers. Many companies prefer to use billboards and promotional events, rather than depend on papers with weak circulation.
"Newspapers are too expensive," says Applefield. " 400CFA (about $1) represents too steep an expense for the individual in terms of their buying power. It should be about 100CFA per paper. The price of advertising is also too high."
Cameroon has more than 600 newspapers but only a handful of dailies. The largest private newspapers are printed on 16 pages, mostly in black and white. Few have a print run of 5,000.
The stagnation of the sector has been partly blamed on poverty and a poor reading culture. Public policy has also not been favorable. A report by German NGO Fesmedia in 2011 found that the government, one of the largest advertisers, uses its clout to influence media coverage.
Even though Cameroon instituted an annual grant to news media many years ago, its impact is largely insignificant. Media owners say they don’t even get enough money from the government to pay a week’s bill.
Media owners also say they are reluctant to make the tough choices needed to turn the industry around. Mergers have been proposed as one way of increasing competiveness. But no one is ready to lose control of their papers. Wache says a strong sense of individuality is at the center of the large number of newspapers.
"Publishing a newspaper turn out being an ego trip," he says, "and most often, many publishers are individuals with bloated egos… How do you kill my personality as Mr. Publisher of The Post?"
For many industry insiders, the question being asked is how do you keep newspapers alive? Mergers have worked in countries like Nigeria. Wache says the first step is a change of mentality in the industry, and among publishers.