Newspapers: Staying relevant in the digital age

April 29, 2016 / By Gwen Lister, African Free Press

After four decades in print, Gwen Lister says she’s been called a “dinosaur” because she was and remains a believer in newspapers – even in the face of the digital tsunami.

Gwen Lister is the Founding Editor and currently Publisher of The Namibian newspaper.

As the digital revolution and new technologies gain impetus, the media world is changing with almost frightening rapidity. The survival of traditional media, print in particular, will be more contingent than ever before on journalistic excellence and connectivity with audiences.

Many have all but buried newspapers as relics of a bygone era. But while the readership decline is especially evident in the United States and Europe, all hope is not lost elsewhere. The 2014 World Press Trends Survey of the World Association of Newspapers shows print circulation increases in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

But that won’t always be the case, caution others, pointing to instances of already dwindling newspaper revenues and sales in the developing world.

People look at newspapersPeople look at the front pages of newspapers in Bangui, Central African Republic

I’ve heard publishers themselves warn with some relish that Africa’s newspapers will inevitably face the same demise when digital and online media become more accessible on the continent. I find the eagerness to write off print inexplicable in view of its often proud legacy of holding power to account and its contribution to literacy where libraries are in short supply, not to mention the brave journalists who risk their all for the truth.

Print has always been my passion – from my beginnings as a newspaper journalist in 1976 to the founding of The Namibian in 1985 (at the height of apartheid South Africa’s occupation of the country) to my current role as publisher. I remain a believer.

It was no easier to start newspapers then than it is to sustain them today. Advocates of an independent press in the African context faced similar tough scenarios, and political, financial and technological constraints dogged our efforts every step of the way.

As the 1980s came to a close, it was a case of the survival of the fittest as obstacles to newspaper sustainability piled up. The African media landscape is littered with the skeletons of once-brave newspapers that didn’t stand the test of time. But many did survive and still continue to “shine a light into the darkness .”

It was mainly print journalists who were the flag-bearers for an independent media in Africa. Their resolve to demand recognition for media freedom culminated in the adoption of the ground-breaking Windhoek Declaration on 3 May 1991 – which the United Nations later marked as World Press Freedom Day. These journalists and editors laid bare the demands, constraints and challenges facing those who were committed to independent media as an indispensable vehicle for imparting news and information.

I am optimistic that journalists of the same caliber can again lead the way in ensuring the survival of print – provided they and their newspapers, editors and owners don’t rest on their laurels.

Man showing newspapersA street newspaper seller hawks his papers in Monrovia, Liberia

I have listened attentively at various international fora scrutinizing the future of media, as smart young men in suits talk about algorithms, stealth models, fast flips and going viral, all the while warning that print’s time is up. And I realized I wasn’t alone when I looked around at the audience and saw the often puzzled faces of journalists who always believed in their cause and their craft. We wondered where this left us.

The key question is whether those of us with a love for print will simply lie down and die – or will we manage to adapt to remain relevant?

Freedom of speech and expression can never have enough defenders. The digital world has been indispensable in giving voice to “people’s revolutions” in situations where vibrant and independent print and other traditional media were unable, under-equipped or prohibited from doing so.

But I remain resistant to the idea of a totally online world, and whatever the current status of print, it is clearly not an “either-or ” situation. There is need for the coexistence of multiple-platform media, and print should continue to have a place in the mix.

Similar to the banning and bombing of newspapers, the digital world also faces its own constraints of government regulation and shutdown. We’ve already seen this, most recently in the 2016 Ugandan elections. Print and online media must be mutually supportive when it comes to guarding our freedoms. Both are vital constituents in the democratic process, and together can contribute to the development of an engaged citizenry and realize the goal of true media pluralism. They must jointly urge governments to refrain from ill-considered attempts to regulate either traditional or new media or risk silencing millions of new voices that have found expression online.

Free speech and media were once considered the exclusive prevail of journalists. This is no longer the case – the right to freedom of expression belongs to all people. The combined strength in numbers of both traditional and new media, if harnessed, will surely give great impetus to the on-going battle for freedom of expression and access to information, not only in Africa, but across the globe.

African children playing with a tablet computer.The digital revolution and new technologies gain impetus

I’m convinced that a world in which there are no newspapers would be a joyless and, dare I say, uniformed world indeed. Those of us who started our careers in the era of hot lead, typewriters, landline telephones and telex machines, and who still believe in the power and the ability of the pen to change the world, must however be prepared to adapt and innovate to remain relevant in the digital era as we did in the past when the arrival of television posed a similar threat.

The biggest danger to newspapers is undoubtedly the loss of public support. It remains critical to enhance professionalism, investigative skills and a commitment to ethics among journalists to retain and regain credibility and to stay close to the communities they serve.

This can be done in a number of ways. Gone are the days of big print newsrooms and expensive foreign bureaus which covered a wide range of news and events. Lean, mean and specialized should be the new watchwords. There are few newspapers today which haven’t already created an online presence in a bid to remain relevant, to facilitate interaction with people and offer them different access options. Important choices need to be made on varying content for the print and online platforms. The newspaper content of the past, with a broad spectrum of international, local news and sport, columns, editorials and letters pages, needs a total overhaul in keeping with a changed audience.

Digging deeper, including cross-border collaborations in investigative reporting, in print and online, to maximize resources, reach larger audiences and save on high newsroom costs, is one of the ways to go. Publishing in local languages and providing SMS short-message pages to create a conduit between people and government are just a few of the successful innovations at various African newspapers. Print has to become more global, yet more local in its reach. In a faster-paced media world, journalists will be required to adapt their skills to both print and online, but this is nothing new. This adrenalin and deadline-driven environment has always faced change and challenge and committed journalists have proved themselves up to the task.

Owners and publishers must be prepared to place a premium on principled journalism before the profit-at-all-costs approach, which has also contributed to editorial compromise and dented credibility among readers.

People at a training course look at computer screensMedia literacy campaigns about online information are crucial

Africa’s Internet growth can’t yet match the boom in mobile technology access on the continent and there’s a difference between noise and news. Information may have become more “democratized” online but at some point people may tire of what has been described by a lecturer from the London School of Economics as a “race to the bottom in terms of ethical standards.”

The perception that Facebook is the Internet and the inability of many on social media to differentiate between hate speech and free speech as well as other online abuses play directly into the hands of governments looking for excuses to “regulate” freedom of expression online. Media literacy campaigns about online media and information are crucial for people to maximize the use of what could be a tremendous resource for their own development. But sooner or later, there will be those who seek out alternative sources of reliable news and information. Newspapers could be there to catch them when they fall.

It may be true that the newspaper reader of old has all but disappeared, that the new online generation have no specific loyalties and will pick and choose the media or medium they prefer. It’s the job of newspapers to get their attention once again, and I’m convinced the recipe lies in a local and community-based approach to what people both need and want to know.

If even the Newspaper Association of America acknowledges that “newspapers continue to innovate and transform, reaching new audiences and discovering new revenue streams,” surely we in Africa must do the same before real decline sets in? The question is whether we have the will and the resources to do what is necessary to ensure that print media not only survives but also thrives in the process.

This article originally appeared as part of African Free Press – a collection of 40 essays by African journalists and media experts exploring the current state of media freedom in Africa. African Free Press, an online dossier and special edition newspaper, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the 1991 Windhoek Declaration, a landmark statement of free press principles adopted during a UNESCO seminar on promoting an independent and pluralistic African press. African Free Press is a project of the Media Institute of Southern Africa and supported by DW Akademie.

The original article was published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license and has been adapted for publication on #mediadev.

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