By Divine Dube
The news industry around the world, Zimbabwe included, is certainly undergoing a metamorphosis.
The rise of new media and social sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are becoming, predominantly, the epicentre for news-making and sharing.
In Africa in general and Zimbabwe in particular, the news sector is undergoing a rough patch, with some newspapers closing down and or laying off staff including journalists with decades of experience in the media industry.
Print readership is clearly declining and newspapers must either adapt and customise or face closure.
Interestingly, most of them have made considerable changes in response to the new media wave but the desired change seems to be moving in snail’s pace.
For instance some newspaper companies have not yet holistically incorporated new media in their strategies. While some newspapers do not have vibrant websites those who have or claim to have them do not update them or if they do, they do after some time to maintain their presence on the web.
Media managers who have been under pressure to incorporate new media in their strategies have gone on to open Facebook and Twitter accounts but sadly; these pages are underutilized or totally lie defunct.
Certainly, soon than later those who are not willing to embrace change will be thrown in the periphery and in the dustbin of history.
This article is not in any way intended to be a critical analysis of the news industry versus the rise of social media but I am humbled to share new insight on innovation in the media industry following my visit to the Staten Island Advance Newspaper in the US last week.
The publication is owned by Advance Publications and publishes community news in the borough of Staten Island in New York City. What inspired me is how this “small” yet influential newspaper is responding or has responded to the rise of new media in terms of “revolutionarising” news production.
While in some media companies, particularly back home where I have been widely exposed to the operations of the media, online news is dedicated to one stuff member who just uploads the newspaper version of the stories online and disappears, this innovative newspaper company has two divisions; that is to say, two news divisions with a fair staff compliment which oversees online news and offline news.
What this means in essence is that the online news section’s role is to “break news” and “compete” with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram on “immediate” events that won’t wait for tomorrow’s newspaper. The online section’s role, in addition to this, is to reproduce the articles in the newspaper by making them short and appealing to online consumers.
The traditional news or offline section’s role is to produce news the traditional way, so to speak. That is to chase morning and afternoon diaries and file news for the next day. Sadly, in Zimbabwe, online stories for websites owned by newspapers are the same long articles in the same newspaper version. I doubt if online news consumers have time to read long articles!
Back to my insights; in addition to the setup, what is more appealing with this newspaper company is that, unlike in traditional newspaper setups, the advertising company and the news section are in the same desk. What an irony! Traditionally, the advertising section and the news section have been enemies because they have conflicting interests.
Is ‘merging’ the advertising and news sections an answer to sustainability? I might not have the response but what I know is that times are changing and newspapers must quickly realise that methods employed in the past may be obsolete today.
Innovation in the news industry involves changing not only the traditional journalism model, but also incorporating changes into its business, technology and marketing.
However, I must succinctly state that Zimbabwe just like other developing countries is also hard hit by the digital divide which is a result of factors that make it difficult for people to obtain access to the Internet. These include things such as poverty; high device, data, and telecommunications charges; infrastructure barriers; digital literacy challenges; and policy and operational barriers.
This alone makes it hard for media houses to fully implement digital strategies without marginalizing vast swathes of communities who are outside the digital grid.
However, it is important to point out that most citizens in Zimbabwe including those residing in rural settlements, are now able to access news via mobile technologies usually through smart phones.
The only disadvantage of mobile platforms versus participatory journalism is that consumers are not able to engage directly with those who make or produce news.
This is different from news shared online via Twitter or Facebook where consumers offer immediate commentary on the content.
It is all up to media houses to “modernise” and quickly adapt to the changing news industry or face closure!
The author, Divine Dube is an MCZ trainee and currently a Mandela-Washington Fellow. He is studying Civic Leadership & Engagement @ Wagner College, School of Liberal Arts in New York.