Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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A man reads the headlines of newspapers for sale on a street in Harare, Zimbabwe, on November 17, 2017 [Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters]

What Zimbabwe’s news rooms must learn from global media closures

A flourishing media needs more than just capital and a few good ideas - it needs innovation

 

Recent closures or downsizing at prominent global media outlets have not only shocked the industry, but also revealed its vulnerability in general.  

The list of media outlets shut down in recent years is long. Leading outlets such as Huffington Post Live in 2016, BuzzFeed - at one time seen as the future of journalism - and VICE - viewed as the upcoming leader in digital journalism - have all encountered financial problems of different magnitudes, resulting in department closures, layoffs or even bankruptcy. We learned that such organisations, while often celebrated and well-known, are not invincible. 

Indeed, a thriving organisation can seemingly go down in an instant. With cumulative years of notable contributions to the journalism field, the demise of these media outlets has been sad, a tragic loss to the industry, but happened rather swiftly, affecting many - not only the journalists who worked there. 

Despite the massive capital and technological knowhow behind some of these organisations, they still failed. So how did this happen? What this reveals is that money and good ideas are not always enough to sustain a thriving news outlet. It takes more than that.

Following the recent flurry of media closures and failures, to me, the most pertinent questions are: what lessons can be drawn and how adequately prepared is local media in face of these global uncertainties. 

In a show of solidarity in the UK, for example, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) members at VICE UK were set to take part in strike action on June 29 and 30 over what they say is the company's failure to provide fair redundancy terms. “Members are taking industrial action in protest at the company's offer to those staff made redundant as a result of financial difficulties at VICE. The offer of £2,000 ($2,567) and statutory redundancy pay comes at a time when VICE has paid executives, including former chief executive officer Nancy Dubuc, up to $1.5 million a year in salary.” The strike was however called off, after the redundancy package was improved to £50,000 ($64,000).

In African nations, however, the collapse of media houses rarely attracts global attention but its effects are hugely felt by investors, local audiences and journalists, who will lose employment and are often affected the most.   

The media in Zimbabwe is already troubled, with the economy in freefall, inflation hovering above 600 percent and faltering investments, while advertising revenues just keep on falling. Experts cited by ZimLive, the digital news platform, have warned of turbulent times ahead for the local media, saying: “Some media analysts predict that several local newspapers, radio stations and television stations face closure by November 2023 as advertising revenue continues to dwindle after falling to as little as 25 percent in three years.” 

Already, the symptoms of a sick local media are being felt, with the largest newspaper groups, the government-owned Zimpapers and the independent Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), reportedly facing financial difficulties. Another state-controlled group, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), is also struggling, with staff saying they have been going for months without pay. A recent tweet by the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), revealed the extent of journalists’ “incapacitation”.   

Faced with looming uncertainty, local journalists and media owners must be innovative for solutions

 

At AMH, there have been reports of state “infiltration”, with the major shareholder, Trevor Ncube, finally admitting that the president’s son-in-law now controls 39 percent of the publication, after much speculation. This came after “the New York-based Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) exited the group as a loan client,” according to the News Hawks.The state-owned Zimpapers group, with its main flagships, The Herald and The Sunday Mail, once thrived on state propaganda.

However, while the state-owned stables once enjoyed a monopoly and some subsidies from state coffers, things have changed and they must now compete to make profits in a highly competitive environment. The monopoly by the state broadcaster, ZBC, is slowly but surely gone and it is now struggling. The advent of independent, innovative players has seen its influence curtailed, as media consumers seek alternative, unbiased and credible sources of news. All these are tell-tale signs of a troubled media industry. 

Faced with looming uncertainty, therefore, local journalists and media owners must be innovative for solutions. Journalists need to look beyond their current employment, think globally and start to initiate other revenue streams, such as blogs, vlogs, podcasts etc. With this in mind, local media should take note of recent closures, study them and adequately strategise, to guard against similar calamities in the future. 

In Zimbabwe, AMH and the weekly Financial Gazette are taking some notable strides, having both introduced some paywalls to increase revenue, as newspaper sales have reduced drastically. The Talking Paper introduced by AMH has attracted interest, according to the group’s Digital and Online Editor, Silence Mugadzaweta. This was done by converting the cover designs of its publications into animated visual-audio motions. 

“The Talking Paper has made great impact as an easy to share multimedia content format combining audio, text and video. For us, it's a new product, first of its kind in Zimbabwe. It has allowed us to push both headlines, and videos at the same time. And our numbers have increased, many of our audience actually prefer to be on the Talking Paper and advertisers too have bought space, so it has yielded both commercial and content value.”

Mugadzaweta adds: “In terms of innovation in newsrooms, there is high demand for digital products that speak to audience needs and media needs to quickly adjust to survive. More and more audience research needs to be improved, make use of several social listening tools to sustain and be able to provide data backed content strategy.”

Derick Matsengarwodzi is an independent journalist based in Zimbabwe

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

 

 

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