Newspapers struggle to survive in tech age

By Gibson Mhaka

Times are changing, albeit negatively, for the print media in the wake of challenges posed by the new media. It is no longer business as usual as smart phones, social media and the internet are usurping the traditional media’s role of breaking stories.

Media experts – veteran journalists and editors – say newspapers must quickly reinvent themselves or risk becoming obsolete. They say publishers must realise that the methods they employed in the past may fail to work today.

A former journalist who is now a legislator for Makonde constituency, Cde Kindness Paradza, says the social media has negatively impacted on the way journalists traditionally function. He says today’s journalist is in some cases now competing with the average citizen for breaking news.

“Journalists are now competing with the average citizen for breaking news through social media such as Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook which are increasingly being used as a source of and a way to spread news by the younger generation.

“People are now turning to the internet for their information needs and print journalism is slowly being cast aside.

‘‘Some people now even consider it a dying art. This is evidenced by the steady decline of print newspaper sales.

‘‘It’s not a secret that the practice of journalism has been slow to adjust to the Internet and the global ramifications produced by the new information technology,” said Cde Paradza.

A member of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Broadcasting Services, Cde Paradza was addressing journalists in Bulawayo recently during a belated World Press Freedom Day celebration. World Press Freedom Day is celebrated every year on May 3.

The day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1993 following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference, to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom throughout the world, defend the media from attacks on their independence and pay tribute to journalists who may have lost their lives in the line of duty.

This year’s celebrations were held under the theme: Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms­This Is Your Right! Journalists who participated in the celebrations said for the print media to remain relevant, employers should apart from adapting to the new media challenge, start paying them competitive salaries.

Media practitioners from both public and private media organisations called for the improvement of their salaries, working conditions, scrapping of some “repressive” laws that infringe on the rights of journalists and media freedom as well as non-­harassment of journalists when discharging their duties.

The 2016 celebrations came at a time when the country’s media companies are seriously struggling for survival in the age of new technology. The period has witnessed print media products’ readership steadily declining, newspapers closing and journalists with decades of experience being laid off.

“With the meteoric rise of social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, many people are convinced that we’re entering a new era where information technology is considerably altering various aspects of the profession,” said a state media journalist who preferred anonymity.

Zimbabwe Independent editor, Dumisani Muleya, says the media is under siege from a plethora of troubles, with the economy now being its biggest threat.

Speaking at the Bornwell Chakaodza Memorial Lecture that was organised by the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe in Harare, a day after World Press Freedom Day, Muleya said despite recording incremental gains in the media reform campaign process, serious challenges remain as shown by retrenchments of journalists, slashing of salaries and delayed pay.

The lecture paper was titled Media Sustainability in the Current Environment.

“Current business models in Zimbabwe and elsewhere are being challenged by the new ways people communicate and consume content, thanks to hi­tech innovations. The convergence of media and entertainment on cyberspace­the so­called information and data super highway – and telecommunications has triggered disruptions and accelerated changes in consumption and advertising distribution patterns.

“Those who want, not only to survive, but also to thrive in this new media environment will have to embrace technology and change.

‘‘The name of the game is simple: disrupt yourself internally and adjust to survive, or be rudely disrupted from outside and risk extinction,” said Muleya.

His presentation shows how the media industry, particularly print, is now beset by an unprecedented range of professional challenges.

Denford Zirugo, a Journalism and Media Studies lecturer at Harare Polytechnic says there are many ways in which digital technologies have impacted on the practice of journalism, from the way reporters gather information and present news stories to how news organisations structure themselves and do business.

“It’s clear that there’s a need by media owners to examine their strategies in organising new work methods in journalism and on ways to create new partnerships with citizens to defend journalism.

‘‘It’s no secret that journalism is undergoing a shift and the landscape is constantly changing, as new devices and tools are added in exponential growth that sometimes appears to cause an excess of choices and opportunities that aren’t known yet to journalists and audiences,” he said.

Zirugo says the world is fast adapting to the Internet and people are no longer willing to pay for information as they used to in the past. He says media companies must have a strong digital presence where they can invent a different means of revenue generation.

“Times are changing and newspapers must quickly realise that the methods they employed in the past may not work today. Innovation in the news industry will involve changing not only the traditional journalism model, but also incorporating changes into its business, technology, and marketing sectors as well.

“Instead of waiting for advertisers, sponsored programmes to generate revenue, media companies should invest in the production of essential commodities or establish some profit driven agencies in their names on these social networking sites and thrive on digital advertising also as a way of staying connected to the audience,” he said.

Innovation is also key for newspapers to remain relevant in today’s technologically savvy world and a new digital focus seems to be the only option, said Zirugo. Journalists, he said, cannot afford to be spectators in this revolution. He says they can only ignore the “earthquake” that is changing the landscape at their own peril.

“Journalists can’t barricade themselves away from the global conversation and rest upon a pedestal that no longer exists. ‘‘To save print media, journalists and editors have to reinvent themselves by adopting new journalism skills and tools as well as receiving more training sensitising them on how to embrace technology and change. ‘‘Such changes will ensure the media industry does not only survive, but also thrives in the process. ‘‘I’m sure if the media realigns themselves to the new audience expectations everything will be alright. ‘‘Granted audiences may have different preferences but the demand for in­depth reporting remains the same,” he said.

About MISA Zimbabwe

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe was founded in 1996. Its work focuses on promoting, and advocating for, the unhindered enjoyment of freedom of expression, access to information and a free, independent, diverse and pluralistic media.