From a freelance writer at the Crusader newspaper to reporter and opinion editor at Daily Monitor, to being one of the founders of The Observer newspaper 14 years ago, Mr James Tumusiime has left an indelible mark on journalism in Uganda. Last month, the newspaper reported that Mr Tumusiime had resigned from his position as Managing Director for health reasons and to pursue a career in the academia.
“When we started, there were 10 shareholders who were also employed by the newspaper. Over the years, we have demonstrated that this newspaper is bigger than individuals, as many moved on [two passed away] and that time has come for me,” Mr Tumusiime said in the paper’s 22 June 2018 edition.
Mr Tumusiime spoke to ACME about his decision to leave active journalism at a time when the high cost of doing business has pushed the paper from a tri-weekly, back to a weekly publication.
Why are you leaving journalism?
I need to take a break to recharge my batteries. The reason for my leaving is really personal coupled with the realisation that I had done whatever I could for the paper under the circumstances. As the traditional saying goes, even the farmer who tills soft ground retires at some point, and The Observer is not soft ground by any stretch of imagination. Even the best dancer leaves the stage, and I have never considered myself a good dancer.
That appears to be the story of Ugandan journalism. Many of you ‘veterans’ have been leaving the newsroom for younger journalists…
Our political and economic realities coupled with the pressures of the craft itself make it difficult for top journalists to stay on, well into their 50s and 60s as in other countries. Journalists have dreams and ambitions too and when these are not being realised and yet the work is stressful and thankless, the tendency to opt out is understandable. Unfortunately, this happens at the expense of quality journalism because some of the space left by competent journalists is often occupied by quacks and mediocres.
Is your departure an indication that you have given up on The Observer? Do you still have faith in the newspaper?
I have not lost faith in The Observer; I have lost faith in my ability and suitability to take it to another level. I believe I have nothing more to offer it and so it’s only fair that I let it go. I gave it all I could for 14 years.
Where do you see Ugandan journalism in the next 10 years?
I see journalism going increasingly digital where costs of production and distribution are comparatively low. As far as print is concerned, old school newspapers will continue to struggle but there is a future for quality products with content targeting specialised sectors such as finance, farming or entertainment.
What do you consider the biggest challenges confronting journalism and the news media today?
Left to their own devices in the private sector, most journalism and media companies are not making much money which means they lack the requisite resources to invest in their businesses, which in turn means they are unable to retain the best talents, which further means their content becomes mediocre, and the vicious cycle rolls on.
Have you tried out the non-profit approach to journalism funding that you wrote about in your research paper as a Reuters Institute Fellow?
No. It was an academic contribution to the body of knowledge and not necessarily an expression of what I personally aspired to do. Having said that, I strongly believe in it because the good old newspaper business model is not sustainable.
You have been generally silent on social media, especially Twitter. Why?
I’ve never been a social media enthusiast. I follow what is trending but restrict my personal engagement to bare minimum. I guess you can blame it on my personality which is rather private.
What are you most proud of as you leave The Observer and journalism?
Building a bold and credible newspaper brand.
Is it true you said journalism was not good for your health?
At The Observer it wasn’t just journalism, it was also the media business. Juggling the two in Uganda’s current political and economic environment, for a publication like The Observer, can have health repercussions.
Teaching and further studies are my preferred options but I don’t have details yet because I’m still in discussions with two universities.