The financial troubles at Times Printpak, better known by its flagship product, the Times of Zambia, are among the most well-known of the longest surviving SOEs in this country.
The company has been in a financial trench for years now, owing millions in statutory debts to ZRA, NAPSA and terminal benefits to dozens of former employees. It’s a wonder the story still makes news.
But it does bear the effort of trying to put the picture in context for those not very familiar with the story of how a newspaper boasting a proud journalistic tradition, and once the preferred outlet for nearly all advertisers, found itself in such dire straits.
The long and short of the tale is that the Times of Zambia is the victim of its own success. Regarded among the best English newspapers in the Commonwealth from the 60s through to the 80s, it was the nation’s favourite daily during the one-party era of Kenneth Kaunda and his UNIP.
Headed by a succession of some of Zambia’s finest newspaper men (Richard Hall, Dunstan Kamana, Vernon Mwaanga, Milimo Punabantu, Naphy Nyalungwe, Komani Kachinga, among others) and top-drawer journalists (Patu Simoko, Marta Paynter, Arthur Simuchoba, Dennis Kapata, Sam Equamo, etc…) the Times boasted a fiercely independent editorial policy.
In keeping with its aphorism ‘Without fear or favour’, the content – hard hitting editorials and satirical columns that spared no one – often appeared at odds with the political culture of the time. It was this character that made the publication so popular.
At its apogee in the late 80s, it was selling over 70,000 copies daily and touching 100,000 with its Sunday version, more than the combined daily circulation of the half-dozen dailies on the market today when the nation’s population has more than doubled at 16 million.
So what went wrong? ‘The Hour’ happened. The Government’s decision to merge the Times of Zambia, a fairly decent newspaper business, with the loss-making Printpak Zambia Limited immediately had the paper staggering under the weight of a bloated wage bill.
The return to multi-party system, with the MMD knocking UNIP off the top political perch and the arrival on the scene of a ferociously independent Post Newspaper then struck the blow from which the Times has never quite recovered.
The Post’s stinging and unremitting criticism of the MMD’s policies and what it saw as massive systemic corruption under the leadership of the late Frederick Chiluba forced the government to pick up the Times as its major means of fighting back. It propagandized the newspaper to the point where loyal readers drifted off into the grateful arms of the Post, the new Times.
With dwindling sales and falling advertising, the Company began to struggle to pay wages, and started to straggle in its statutory obligations to the treasury and to NAPSA, even as loyal and proud staff continued to crank out daily editions on obsolete machinery.
Meanwhile, the mountain of litigation cases arising from the newspaper falling foul of libel laws in execution of its duties, usually under pressure from the ruling party, was getting ever higher, and emerging media was spawning new competitors for both readers and advertising.
Today, almost all the newspapers’ ills are of a historical nature, but none of which are incurable. The commitment from the IDC, the holding company of the newspaper, to recapitalise the operations are one of several steps that offer a long term solution.
Cutting the staffing levels is another option that has been discussed, but it does require huge sums of money to be paid in benefits. Of even more immediate concern, however, is the question of how to deal with the long list of retired employees who continue to appear on the payroll, along with the hundreds of thousands paid every month in litigation costs.
Deal with these latter two and the company can very easily recoil to its former status.