Editor’s Memo

Newspapers: the endangered species
Vincent Kahiya


LAST week’s edition of The Economist magazine carried a special report that should have stirred awe and horror in the minds of print media entrepreneurs and newspaper journalists.



The report said in the rich world, “newspapers are now an endangered species” due to the advent of the Internet. The report quotes Philip Meyers’ book The Vanishing Newspaper as predicting that at the current rate of decline “the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America as the last exhausted reader tosses aside the last crumpled edition”.

To buttress this point The Economist included in the article statistics of falling readership of newspapers, an 18% decline in the number of people employed in the industry in America between 1990 and 2004 and tumbling share prices of listed newspaper publishing houses.

It also reported that Britons aged 15 to 24 now spend 30% less time reading newspapers as they are hooked on the Internet which expanded the oversight role of the media through news aggregation sites such as Google news, Yahoo news and so on. There is also a new genre of e-news in the form of blog spots which has opened journalism to anyone with Internet connectivity.

The article pointed out that the print media would lose a quarter of their share of advertising revenue to Internet-based publications in the next 10 years. Newspaper organisations that will survive, the report says, are those that will reinvent themselves and migrate onto new media platforms such as mobile phones and portable electronic devices.

The tragedy of the print industry has been that huge profits achieved during the fat years have not been invested in research and development. The print media is now trying to play catch-up to counter the advancing Internet wave. The article is however clear that this is the state of affairs in the developed world and those of us in the third world, where the print media is actually growing, can feel safe, at least for now.

A 2005 report by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) says circulation sales were up 1,7% in Asia over the previous year, 3,7% in South America, 0,2% in Africa, but down 0,24% in Europe and 2,5% in North America.

Other studies have shown that newspapers in Africa are safe from Internet intrusion because of poor telephone connectivity on the continent. There is also a large rural population — a potential new market —- which is yet to be introduced to more basic media such as newspapers and radio. Then there is hunger for news by communities demanding greater accountability from corrupt and inefficient rulers. Papers in the third world, including Zimbabwe, appear to have time on their side largely due to the enveloping underdevelopment.

Media magnate Rupert Murdoch last year described this slothful grasp of changes in the industry as “remarkably, unaccountably complacent”. The same complacency was evident when cellphone technology started to make inroads on the continent. The little gadget was regarded as a preserve of the rich and the largely rural communities had nothing to do with it. Just 10 years since its introduction, there are four times more cellphone users in rural areas in Zimbabwe than those connected to fixed lines and the demand is growing.

In our preoccupation with survival in an environment dominated by egregious media legislation and a government that does not believe in press freedom, we have become servants of convention. Media owners have been slow to invest in research and development to prepare for an eventual makeover of the
industry.

We do not expect Dr Tafataona Mahoso’s Media and Information Commission to lead the charge in ensuring local media evolves in tandem with the rest of the world. The MIC has become a key appendage of the government machinery to hamstring technological advancement — a prerequisite for the growth of new media — in the name of sovereignty and patriotism.

Can the MIC do something positive for once — like initiating research in e-newspapers and other forms of new media? The findings of the research unfortunately will most likely be that Zimbabweans don’t need this globalisation “evil”. Not surprising, since Mahoso believes Zimbabweans said they wanted government to enact Aippa!

Top