Mzati tutors media houses

 We Can Save Our Newspapers–If we want

I write this because I love journalism, also because I want journalists to be valued and paid for what they produce. And I focus on newspapers because their survival is in danger.

Malawi had over 30 newspapers in early 1990s, including three dailies: The Daily Times, The Daily Monitor and The Nation (of course, the three were never dailies at the same time). Today, Malawi has two dailies and a couple of weeklies. The Daily Monitor died.

Not just that, the country’s oldest print media house, Blantyre Newspapers Limited (BNL) retrenched staff in the last week of August, 2011. It is all about money; the institution is not making enough to survive, either it retains all staff and drown the company or lay off some and keep the company afloat.

But managing a media house or any company is more complicated than “either we retain staff and sink or downsize and survive”. There are other factors between the extremes of firing and retaining staff.

Newspapers have three channels of generating income: sales, advertising and, related to sales, subscription. I separate sales from subscription for a reason. Sales on the street or in a shop bring money when the newspaper is out while subscription is an advance payment, of course, on the assumption that the newspaper shall come out, anyway.

Of the three, it is advertising that keeps a newspaper on the market in Malawi and elsewhere. In terms of a newspaper’s survival, sales and subscription revenue is for stationary and such other needs. No advertising, no survival. It is that straightforward yet winding under the surface.

“Henry Luce, a co-founder of TIME,” writes Walter Isaacson in Time Magazine of February, 2009, “disdained the notion of giveaway publications that relied solely on ad revenue. He called that formula ‘morally abhorrent’ and also ‘economically self-defeating.’

“That was because Luce believed that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue.”

Newspapers in Malawi rely on advertising revenue and advertising departments receive the greatest attention resulting into steady or increased income (as seen by a naked eye). But under the ground, visible to eyes with media glasses, a newspaper loses its readers because people buy content, not adverts.

Circulation should not be confused with readership. I believe the number of newspaper readers is increasing as more people are going to school than before. But the number of people who find newspapers a relevant daily source of information and knowledge isn’t rising visibly. And the number of people buying newspapers is dropping.

Of course there is the question of economy. There is an argument that newspapers are not affordable to a majority of Malawians. True, but not for all Malawians. Over a 100,000 Malawians can afford two newspapers per day everyday. (This is my fair assumption.) It takes K12,000 to buy two newspapers everyday for a month and there are people who spend K30,000 in a month on beer and other forms of entertainment. Why is it that our dailies combined sell 20,000 copies only in a day?

Add to this, hundreds of readers get the content of newspapers via Internet and for no subscription at all. Just at the cost of accessing internet. So, for now, circulation figures will keep on dropping and finally the advertiser will realise that newspapers are as good as placing an ad on a website. But to understand why circulation is dropping, we need to walk together through this discovery journey.

Changing World

Journalism has five traditional functions, according to Joseph Dominick in his book, Dynamics of Mass Communication. The functions are surveillance (or information), linkage, entertainment, socialisation and interpretation. Newspapers are supposed to inform people what has happened or will happen. They also link people with similar or different ideas, buyers and sellers in the classified ad pages, for example. Entertainment is obvious. Newspapers entertain us with cartoons but this function is better satisfied by radio, especially television. The final two functions are crucial. Newspapers are an agent of socialisation, meaning they can transmit values to people and bring change for better or worse. But that is not all. Newspapers do not just tell people what has happened. They also tell people the meaning of those events and ideas and issues.

Our changing world has hit newspapers on the first three functions. There is more information on the Internet and elsewhere than in newspapers. Facebook is linking people with untold speed. People can sell and buy on the Internet. And entertainment is available on the Internet with cartoons and films that people may not necessarily go to newspapers for these three functions. Birthday wishes and such other messages are done on Facebook more than in classified ads.

What remains in essence for newspapers are the last two functions of socialisation and interpretation of ideas/issues/events. People are largely looking for meaning (the interpretation function) because there are a lot of things happening in our small worlds.

Information is all over in our world. People cannot wait for the morning to know what is happening in our world. By 9 PM people, for sure, know what is likely to come out in the papers the next day.

What the newspapers have to do is analysis. But in a study I did on HIV and AIDS stories in 2002, 3% of the stories were analytical with the ability to socialise and interpret. If people cannot find meaning in newspapers, don’t be surprised with dropping circulation figures. A newspaper that wants to keep its circulation figures up should go into analysis and interpretation.

Relevance

In circumstances that a tragedy has occurred as early as 10 in the morning in Blantyre, what kind of reporting should a newspaper do to attract an audience that has followed the event on radio, television and internet?

The collapse of a building that housed Kips Restaurant on Tuesday morning, 17 May, 2011, showed that the print media is yet to find a style of relevance. Malawians were well updated about the accident on radio, television and Internet.

But our two dailies of Wednesday, 18 May 2011, presented less than what the electronic media did on Tuesday. Take the example of Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). Our two reporters were on the scene two minutes after the accident. Immediately, we organised ourselves and started live coverage, breaking the news to Malawians on radio. Our TV channel followed suit at about 11 and we had some meaningful coverage in our Lunch Hour Edition of news.

We continued with live coverage from the site and Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital throughout the afternoon. We spoke to a survivor. We also spoke with a man who was the first to rescue the owner of Kips, Shaffique Giga, pronounced dead on arrival at Mwaiwathu Private Hospital.

In addition, we had analysis in the studios, talking to civil engineers and town planners. The Police were part of our sources. Zodiak Broadcasting Station (ZBS) also did some live coverage of the tragedy.

Now after all this work by the electronic media on Tuesday, what style would have been suitable for the print media to remain relevant on Wednesday?

The Nation newspaper had “Tragedy at Kips” as its headline while The Daily Times said “Café collapse kills staff”.

The Nation opened its story like this: “Three people, including owner of Kips Restaurant in Blantyre, died and 25 were injured yesterday after the building housing the restaurant collapsed while undergoing renovations. Southern Region Police spokesperson Davie Chingwalu confirmed the accident claimed three lives, but could not give the names of the people who died.”

By Wednesday morning when The Nation hit the market, people had all this information: that three people had died, that among the three was the owner, that the building was being renovated. On top of this, people had the names of those who had died, meaning the part that says “but could not give the names of the people who died”, made the report irrelevant. These are opening paragraphs that should contain new information, told in a way that is attractive in style and substance.

The story goes on to quote an eye witness who speaks on condition of anonymity. Why? People, including eye witnesses had spoken on camera on Tuesday. Why should a newspaper the morning after be stuck with anonymous sources of a story that anyone can see?

The Daily Times said “At least three people died and several others were injured when an uptown eatery, Kips restaurant, collapsed in downtown Blantyre yesterday morning.” As said above substance and style are lacking here: people were aware of this already. In such a case, style matters. Sadly, style is lacking here.

So why should a person spend K200 on a newspaper which does not offer a new perspective to a major story? See why circulation figures are going down?

News Sources

There are four types of news sources in theory: eye witness, expert (like a psychiatrist if you are writing about metal health) institutional (an example being National AIDS Commission on issues of HIV and AIDS) and documentary (books, reports, journals as examples).

Of these, I think the eye witness is crucial in establishing story context. But there is a visible death of the eyewitness in our newspaper stories. An accident happens here, and radios and TVs talk to eyewitnesses who explain what happened, follow the story to hospitals and Police and so on—then the next day we have newspapers talking to Police and hospitals only, leaving out the eyewitness.

Sample newspaper stories for a week and you will witness there is death of the eyewitness. Yet this is an important source because they bring life to a story, they re/construct reality which a good reporter presents in style. People want to read about themselves or other people like them. People want news according to their version also, not just the version of the Police and doctors or nurses.

Apart from the officialdom in newspaper stories, activists, especially human rights activists, have invaded newspapers and people have been sidelined. Even experts are finding it difficult to explain issues in newspapers because activists are commenting on almost everything as if they were knowledgeable. A typical example is the Weekend Nation of Saturday, 3 September, in which one human rights activist was interviewed on pre-exposure prophylaxis and post exposure prophylaxis. It was all confusion that I need not repeat the chaos here.

But the point is that human rights activists are commenting on matters they don’t understand and they have made newspapers become irrelevant. Some reporters have secretaries of some civil society leaders making newspapers sometimes appear like civil society newsletters.

Young people with knowledge on issues cannot buy newspapers to read crap from human rights activists with low literacy levels on life, governance, democracy, rights and responsibilities or duties. The tragedy is that as old newspaper buyers are dying, they are not being replaced by young people, partly, perhaps largely, because the youth are not finding newspapers to be of any relevance to them. So, they better spend K30,000 in a month on beer and other forms of entertainment than on newspapers.

Conclusion

The concluding question should be: What should newspapers do to remain relevant and keep circulation figures high to retain the scarce advertiser? To be honest, I have no answers. I don’t think any single journalist or business mogul has clues to solve the puzzle that is newspapers.

We need to discuss. We need to talk and debate. But newspaper managers need to remember that content matters more than anything else. They need to recruit and retain the best writers. People want detailed stories that explain the world not stories that repeat what every person on the street is saying. People want something different. The future of newspapers lies in features, and hard news told with a difference, with pictures that tell a story.

Journalism revolved into a profession because of newspapers. I believe the world still needs newspapers and I love journalism, so let’s talk to keep journalism relevant to our changing world.

*Mzati Nkolokosa is a blogger and a government journalist working state broadcaster, MBC.

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