Are newspapers on their way out?

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ALPHA Media Holdings chairperson Trevor Ncube recently raised – on two occasions – an interesting issue that is subject of much academic debate.
Firstly, he told journalism undergraduates at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo that traditional newspapers are on their way out.
He also pithily touched on the same issue while addressing a Sapes Trust policy dialogue debate in Harare.
At the core of his argument was that the Internet and mobile phones are quickly displacing newspapers.
Buttressing his case, he stated that there will be over 230 million mobile broadband connections in Africa by 2015 and that more people will have broadband than electricity at home.
As a result, Ncube argues, news media organisations in Zimbabwe should either adapt or die.
“Africa’s young and educated is in love with mobile phones and the Internet,” he was quoted as saying by Newsday.
“This group has not yet fallen in love with newspapers and the majority never will. The opportunity that the newspaper industry has on the continent is to get its content onto smart and feature phones and tablets and build sustainable business models around this new ecosystem.”
“This is huge for the newspaper industries’ ability to develop business models that take advantage of this technological revolution,” he said.
With this borne in mind it is of paramount importance that we critically analyse Ncube’s assertions, but before we do that a brief history will help.
The advent of television in the West saw newspaper circulation recording a gradual but steady decline. Newspapers seized to be the principal source of news.
Sadly, afternoon newspapers were forced out in the 1950s and 1960s as more and more people watched television for news.
Despite this cataclysmic development, the morning press survived.
Although they could not compete with television as far as speed is concerned, newspapers were favoured by the reading public as they provided in-depth news coverage, something that lacked on television.    
Having eased their nerves for three decades, newspaper owners faced a new threat in the form of the Internet, which recorded an exponential growth in the 1990s.
This, indeed, raised much fear about the future of newspapers given the casualties that television had brought to the industry.Advertisement

Cyber optimists or utopians are of the idea that newspapers switch from print to online, and reporters as well as editors should wake up to the reality that the future success is with the Internet
“Now recognising that technology is becoming the way of the future, newspapers are adapting and reaping many of the consequential benefits.
“As competition continues to challenge newspapers, it is highly unlikely that newspapers will ever return to the way they were decades ago. Newspapers are finally coming to terms with the inevitable high-tech future,” argues United States-based scholar, Katelyn McKenna.
Ncube, took the issue a step further by declaring that newspapers that fail to embrace new technological trends will die.
However, to avoid a gross generalisation, which often characterise cyber optimists, one should look at this debate within the Zimbabwean context.
In my view, it is too celebratory of the impact of Internet on newspapers, to conclude that if local newspapers do not adapt they will soon go six feet under.
Without being labeled a cyber dystopian, I should say that there are disparities in Internet access between people living in developed economies and those living in the less developed economies.
Latest data issued out by the International Telecommunication Union indicate that Europe and Africa are the regions with the highest and the lowest levels of household Internet penetration respectively.
Europe recorded a penetration rate of 77 percent in 2012 while Africa registered seven percent. Only 16 percent of people are said to be using the Internet in Africa – half the penetration rate of Asia and the Pacific, according to the report.
Africa has the highest, and the widest range of, mobile-broadband prices.
“Whereas in the upper-middle income countries Mauritius, Namibia, Seychelles and South Africa 1 GB of postpaid mobile-broadband services costs 10 per cent or less of GNI per capita, it corresponds to more than 200 per cent of GNI per capita in Zimbabwe and 600 per cent in Liberia, and is thus not affordable for large segments of the population,” reads the report.
What is cheaper for one to buy a newspaper that costs $1 than to pay the same amount to have Internet access (which is often slow) for 30 or 40 minutes at a downtown cyber café in Harare or Bulawayo?
Even if one has a smart phone or a tablet, what amount of data do they need to read all the stories? How many people have Wi-Fi at home in Zimbabwe? How many people have Internet access at work, and if they do are they allowed to visit news sites?
Even if one has access to the Internet, it does not necessarily mean that they will continue to read online news for free.
The news groups will no doubt end the current tradition of providing their online content for at no cost.
Already this has started in developing countries, where some newspapers have resorted to what is known as “pay walls”.
In, Zimbabwe where most people do not do online banking let alone have visa debit or credit cards, it boggles the mind how they will subscribe to their favourite newspapers online.
Even if news media companies decide to sell access coupons offline that readers will use to gain access, the system will bring additional costs not only to the readers but to the news providers.
We cannot even talk about the costs of buying laptops and other hardware needed to access the Internet. We cannot even mention the issue of technological know-how and electricity, which is said to remain problematic in rural Africa.
These are some of the daily realities that we face in Zimbabwe and Africa in general before we conclude like Google’s executive chairperson Eric Schmidt, who recently predicted that “by the end of the decade, everyone on earth will be connected”.
Economic factors, poor management and gutter journalism will likely see some sunshine burnt newspapers taken away from our streets not Internet, at least in the distant future.
About the author: Mathew Nyaungwa is a former ZBC news producer and is currently reading for his M.A in Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, in South Africa. He can be contacted via email: