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After the death of print and legacy media, who will save journalism?

Similarly, Canadian Reader’s Digest closed down end of 2023 citing, “declining ad sales revenues, increased production and delivery costs and changes in consumer reading habits”.

In April this year, the Reader’s Digest closed in the United Kingdom after an astounding 86 years of existence and serving a global audience. According to the editor Eva Mackevic, the company closed due to, “today’s unforgiving magazine publishing landscape and has ceased to trade”.

Similarly, Canadian Reader’s Digest closed down end of 2023 citing, “declining ad sales revenues, increased production and delivery costs and changes in consumer reading habits”.

Latest figures show circulation figures at 106 336 in July to December 2016, against a circulation of 403 458 in the first half of 2010 and more than one million in 2001.

Even more concerning, that this is happening in economies that consume media content more through subscriptions.

Closer to home, rumour is spreading about Media24’s intention to close down the print versions of its biggest publications, City Press, Beeld, Daily Sun and Rapport. These are no longer tell-tale signs, but reality confronting journalism business today.

Even though the reports are unconfirmed, circulation figures shared across digital platforms tell a gloomy story on the tribunal of penance in print. Beeld is said to have plummeted from 100 000 to 20 000 and City Press from 233 000 to around 14 000.

While in Zimbabwe we do not have a culture of sharing audited circulation figures, we probably know our numbers could be similar, if not worse.

Perhaps, the fact that we hide behind this opaqueness, contributes to false hopes and strength that legacy media still has a strong footing and will resurrect at some point in the future.

In broadcasting, streaming is claiming a 37,7% against cable television and broadcasting, with YouTube leading at 9.3%, and Netflix at 7,8%, while the remainder is shared among platforms like Hulu, Tubi and Peacock according to Nielsen February 2024 data.

This is reality of our time in journalism, some may call it hard times, some call it a tsunami, and some say it’s the death of print and TV. In Zimbabwe, all media houses are bleeding, either failing to pay, delaying salaries, or paying peanuts.

While executives and journalists are privy to the changes that have already happened within the industry, they are still void of concrete plans to rescue the journalism business.

Either there are serious demands to generate revenues from digital, or there is always pressure to review the so-called “digital strategy” which is usually not very concrete because many of the designers are deeply engraved in legacy media. So every digital aspect of strategy borrows heavily from existing business models.

Perhaps our biggest dilemma is the failure by media houses to invest in digital and strategise. The investment includes human resources, technology needs, and research.

Digital is not voodoo, or some feja feja type of business. You need a strategy; you need research and you need to define your wins. What does success look like in digital? What are the important metrics that measure success? Who should do what, with which resources?

The need to think hard

For a long time, Zimbabwean newsrooms have remained pretty much the same, heavily leaning toward legacy business with a thin line of attention to digital. With an audience that is oversaturated with information from various sources, what value does our journalism have?

We had hoped the “Digital First” strategy would yield positive results but a look around our publications exposes the fact that we are still stuck with telling yesterday’s story today.

It is highly likely that for most events and breaking news, our audience would have accessed it the previous day through multiple digital channels. And they will come to established and trusted brands for context and have certain questions answered.

But if this value is not retained, we are guaranteed to lose these audiences.

Of course, across the world, legacy business is still bringing in greater cake insofar as revenues are concerned, but the numbers are taking a down turn very fast and will never be same.

Surprisingly, most organisations have a sort of unpronounced digital strategy, or pseudo strategy they claim to follow. But the suspicion is that the strategies are failing because they borrow heavily from print, or they don’t have change champions. And in cases where change champions may be there, structures are such that they are not authoritative enough or they got elbowed by organisational politics.

But the remedy for change is probably introspecting on newsroom structures, and evaluate whether we are moving with the times or not. In the past few decades new roles and models in managing newsroom have emerged.

In today’s newsroom business, new roles are vital to mind-set shift and transformation. Some have called them “Bridge Roles” and they capacitate teams with a mix of multidisciplinary skills combining contemporary needs of the newsroom and current skills.

In the old times, no one ever thought about audience, product, data and design, but today these constitute an important arm in the news business.

Progressive newsrooms have roles like audience and editorial strategy, content strategy director and product director within their organogram. These roles provide distinct responsibilities that help editorial and commercial teams work together and accelerate the transformation journey.

It means publishers needs to have leverage when it comes to attracting new talent. Not to say longest serving employees are unimportant, but if people have stayed in an organisation and they have not brought in new ideas, innovations, it simply means they have a dearth on that.

Think technology

It is a given that technology has changed how news is processed, gathered, and distributed and most importantly accelerated audience shifts. Over 90% of the audience that access news content use mobile devices and the critical question to answer is weather our products are mobile compatible.

Technology will move faster than we can be able to catch up, worse with our stiffness in catching up with technology, we are over 100 years behind.

But the good news is that technology can enhance our journalism, widen our content reach and allow for new content distribution avenues.

Nowadays it’s easy to create niche digital-only products that are subscription-based and can survive on partnerships.

Changes in content modalities, inducing a high demand for data journalism catalysed by technology are also another quick wins for publishers to capitalise on. Research has shown that data journalism gives different texture to storytelling, helping audiences understand huge chunks of data that would have been broken down into simple visuals.

But our biggest deficiency has been lack of investment in technology infrastructure that allow smooth news gathering, or customised tools that allow live reporting.

Newsrooms still rely on Word Press as the most popular CMS; compared to other publishers across the border who have invested in customised CMSs, and even analytics tools as newsrooms move to invest in data for informed decisions.

The race to save journalism demands agile newsroom teams and coordination within all business units. 

Mugadzaweta is the digital and online editor for Alpha Media Holdings and content strategies blogger for International News Media Association.

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