FrontPage Africa is known as an investigative Liberian daily. As many as 1,500 copies roll off their presses each night. They’re collated and folded by hand for distribution in the early morning. By 11 a.m., publisher and editor Rodney Sieh says, they’re gone.
Sieh started FrontPage Africa in 2005 as an online newspaper for the Liberian diaspora. Sieh studied journalism at CUNY–he founded the university’s first online student newspaper, in the 1990s–and worked for several American dailies before returning to Liberia in 2008.
That’s the same year he turned FrontPage Africa into a print paper. Since its debut on the streets of Monrovia, FrontPage has earned a reputation as a different kind of paper. Other papers give play mostly to the minutiae of politics, but FrontPage has covered teenage prostitution, impunity among law enforcement officials accused of crimes, and the alleged murder of a teenager covered up to look like a suicide–all on the front page. “The risks we take set us apart from other people,” he says. At its roots, he says, this is watchdog journalism–about human rights, accountability and transparency–but Sieh concedes that interesting Liberians in these topics sometimes takes sensationalism.
Lately, those risks are many. Sieh has been held in contempt by the Supreme Court for publishing a story alleging embezzlement by some of the Court’s justices. He says he can’t find a lawyer who will represent him–the head of the Liberian Bar Association has publicly called for Sieh to be punished for the story–and he faces a 30-day jail term. His star reporter, Pulitzer Fellow and New Narratives journalist Mae Azango, received death threats for her International Women’s Day cover story about female genital mutilation.
It’s not just Sieh’s watchdog approach that should catch outsiders’ attention. It’s also his business model. While his print run is small, he says he’s indifferent to the sales figures. “We already have a brand online,” he says, “so we don’t worry about the sales.”
But the paper is tied with another daily as the top-seller in the country. Sieh deflects a bit of credit for that. In Liberia, “people buy a paper no matter what you put on the page,” he says.
Editor's note: This post has been updated to include Mae Azango's affiliation with New Narratives.