Wangethi Mwangi, former Editorial Director at Nation Media Group, and now Senior Advisor at African Media Initiative, shares insights on the biggest stories of the last three decades, his personal interactions with two Kenyan presidents and how the Internet is shaping the future of media in Africa.
By Wanjiru Waithaka
Photography: Emma Nzioka, AMI, Wangethi family
It was a bitter cold day with sheets of rain pouring down relentlessly. Warm air from the car’s interior fogged up the windows, matching the fog outside that had reduced visibility to just a few metres. The rain was a steady drumbeat on the roof as the car sped towards the coffee farms of Limuru, making good time on a road devoid of traffic, which had been cleared to allow passage of the president’s motorcade.
The late Juvénal Habyarimana, third President of the Republic of Rwanda, was in Nairobi on an official visit. Wangethi Mwangi, a trainee sub-editor with the Standard newspaper, was in a vehicle a few metres behind him, together with photographer Frank Wanjohi.
The motorcade had just passed the shopping centre at Banana when the storm felled a tree which hit electric cables, sending them crashing to the ground where school children waved miniature flags as they cheered the president. Three died on the spot. The Standard driver brought the car to a screeching halt at Wangethi’s urging as the rest of the motorcade sped on. Wanjohi leaped out of the car and began taking pictures, cupping the lens with his hands to shield the camera from the rain.
Wangethi started interviewing onlookers while taking down details of the scene. The police arrived soon after and the dead and injured were taken to Nazareth Hospital.
Back in the newsroom, he banged out his copy on an ancient type writer on six sheets of paper separated by carbon paper. The copies usually went to the news editor, chief sub-editor and the editor-in-chief among others. He pulled the sheets out of the typewriter, pleased with his handiwork.
His editor wasn’t impressed. He immediately put fresh sheets of paper into his own typewriter and taught Wangethi his first crucial lesson in journalism – how to write an intro. Wangethi had started the story thus: ‘Three school children were electrocuted yesterday…’. The editor typed: ‘Tragedy struck deep in the heart of Kiambu yesterday…’ and rewrote the entire first paragraph.
The story went to the front page giving Wangethi his first byline in the paper. A person unfamiliar with the workings of a newsroom would expect that Wangethi would be reprimanded for abandoning the Habyarimana assignment but instead he received praise for spotting a breaking story and following his instincts. After all, the paper could always use copy from the Kenya News Agency (KNA) for the Habyarimana story.
This was one of two incidents early in his career that shaped the way he approaches journalism even today. The other also involved a dignitary, but was the complete opposite of the stellar performance he displayed on the Habyarimana assignment.
The UN had just opened its Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat) office in Nairobi and Arcot Ramachandran, Under-Secretary General had been appointed its first Executive Director. The late Mitch Odero, news editor at the Standard, asked Wangethi to go to the airport and cover his arrival.
“Obviously, it was a big thing and yet I had no idea about Habitat and no time to research. He just gave me a car and photographer and asked me to go and report the story.” Wangethi racked his brain wondering how he was going to pull off the assignment.
“Calestous Juma, a reporter for the Nation, saved the day,” Wangethi recalls. Juma, now a respected professor at Harvard University, knew his subject. “He had studied a lot about the environment and was already acquainted with Ramachandran, so he fired all the questions while the rest of us took notes.” Juma wrote an excellent story for the Nation.
Wangethi describes his own story as passable. “I promised myself I would never go to an assignment unprepared, and would ensure anyone working under me was properly briefed before going out on assignment,” he says.
Meeting Wangethi for the first time is a confusing experience. His ability to smell a breaking story from miles away is legendary but he has a reputation for being a ruthless taskmaster who thunders when angry, is intimidating to his juniors and flat out arrogant even with superiors.
Managing editors who walked around the newsroom like they owned it, inspiring fear in juniors themselves, were said to be reduced to stuttering wrecks in Wangethi’s presence, almost as if their brains had been lobotomised or cloned such that they were unable to communicate in anything more than a mumble.
Kwamchetsi Makokha, a Nation columnist and communications consultant puts it thus: “With Wangethi, you have 60 seconds to make a good impression. If you don’t earn his respect when he first meets you, you’ll never earn it, no matter what you do in subsequent weeks, months or years.”
My first impression of him is a friendly social gentleman with a mild personality and not the least bit intimidating. Where is the monster I was warned about?
Wangethi laughs at this saying that is not his management style but when pressed, he admits there is some truth to it. “I was very demanding, very authoritative and also very impatient. That’s what I would call the extreme side of me, but if I liked you, I could be very patient, understanding and accommodating.”
He shouted when upset especially when someone goofed on a story. What is that common refrain ‘Lawyers jail their mistakes, doctors bury theirs, but journalists publish theirs for the entire world to see’? In such a high pressure environment where deadlines are critical, and reporters have only hours to put stories together, it’s perhaps understandable that an Editorial Director would lose his cool when errors slipped into the page.
After all, he was responsible for everything that went into the paper and was the one people sued when unhappy about a story. This sometimes extended to advertising where he was blamed when readers considered an ad offensive, never mind that ads were the preserve of the advertising department.
Wangethi also concedes that he can be very dismissive and has in the past denied someone a job in the newsroom or a promotion within a few minutes of meeting them. He says he goes with his gut and has no apologies about it. This confidence in himself, which has thrust him into leadership positions in his journalism career, has its roots in his childhood. Continue reading “Wordsmith: Wangethi’s Second Act”