Power of the (Printing) Press

Heritage newspaper publisher and managing editor Mohammed Kennah seen here with the rusted shell of the printing press, banned by President Charles Taylor in the 1990s

When it comes to the media in Liberia, he or she who owns a printing press shall dominate the market. There are only a handful of media-owned printing presses in the country.

The rest of the newspapers are printed through commercial printing presses that charge a relative fortune, making it next to impossible for a newspaper to reinvest in itself when so many day-to-day revenues are sunk into printing. (For instance, a newspaper can easily pay $4,000 per month in printing and newsprint costs when the newspaper with a circulation of about 1,000 sells for about 30 cents on the street and relies on a handful of ads in each issue. Do the math.)

Because of this, printing presses are coveted by the many newspapers, including the one I am based at, the Heritage, that do not already own one because the papers are financially handcuffed so long as they rely on someone else to print its issues, and also more vulnerable to being shut down by anyone, government or otherwise, who does not want them printing.

The type of printing press in question is not the monstrosity you might remember seeing in movies. Instead, the printing presses coveted here are shorter than an adult and barely wider than a typical adult’s wingspan.

But the purchase and (large) shipping costs amount to nearly US$100,000–no small task in finding.

It’s a big goal of the newspaper here, and only recently did I learn the Heritage had already achieved–and lost–its dream once before.

In 1998, the Heritage paid the price for publishing news critical of then-President Charles Taylor, who is now on trial at the Hague for war crimes. He shut the paper down and several staffers fled the country.

But sometimes help comes from the most unexpected quarters, and for unexpected reasons.

According to folks here, U.S. Government-funded organizations stepped forward to help, eager for the revival of a critical press in Liberia.

The nearly US$100,000 was found to purchase and ship a printing press to get the Heritage (and so they hoped, other papers as well) back up and running.

Unfortunately, Charles Taylor forbid the printing press from being used. So the press–the embodiment of a dream–sat in the open air, covered by a shabby tarp, and rusted, never to print a single copy of a newspaper.

Today it sits as a shell of its former self on the outskirts of downtown Monrovia. Rats have chewed out the wires and any usable parts have been taken to be used in presses elsewhere. Every metal surface is thick with rust.

“It is so frustrating,” the publisher of the Heritage told me, amazingly enough with a smile.

But he is determined to get another printing press so his paper can evolve from day-to-day survival and grow into a paper that has the resources and independence it needs to do even stronger journalism.

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