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The newspaper industry is not just gloomy at the moment, its future appears to be hanging by the thread. News organisations are reporting depressed sales and aertising figures while in most cases, their members of staff are finding it hard to access their hard-earned salaries. Even those that used to get bucketfuls of foreign funding are struggling to keep afloat.

Sure, the depressed economy has something to do with the news organisations’ fortunes but it is no secret that the wide availability of news content online is drawing the traditional newspaper buyer away from the street corner and onto a cheaper, more convenient platform.

Back in the year 2000, one writer predicted that, “news organisations in the new millennium will be publishing to multiple media: print-delivered, home-printed, the Web, e-mail, PDAs (personal digital assistants or hand-held computers), mobile phones, e-readers (or e-book readers), pagers, Internet radio, and broadcast radio and TV.

“A newspaper company of the near future will likely distribute its content to all of those except broadcast radio and TV”.

Today, news organisations are finding it important to do just that — packing news into a variety of ‘packets’, including text, audio, pictures and video so that readers ‘experience’ news through the choices that are availed to them.

For Zimbabwean newspapers, the first step towards presentation of such choices has been presenting news online. It is clear that these traditional news organisations decided to join the ‘internet bandwagon’ without a specific business plan or an understanding of how offering free news could affect their revenue generation.

How else could one explain availing all their news content online so that anyone can access it for free?

Who is going to buy the newspaper for a dollar when the same information in it is freely available elsewhere? Aertisers are understandably sceptical about investing on a platform that is yet to prove its trustworthiness.

However, research in other countries such as the United States of America where ICT technologies are more developed than ours have largely found the internet to have a positive influence on the general populace.

The internet is seen as a vehicle to increase involvement of ordinary citizens in direct, deliberative, or g democracies. Online content is thought to hold promise as a mechanism facilitating alternative channels of civic engagement and a way to revitalise mass participation in public affairs, exemplified by feedback facilities such as the comments sections just below featured internet news articles.

The dissolution of the one way, linear communication model that used to ignore the readers’ opinions has clearly helped the online readers, but the newspapers are suffering.

Every media executive must be asking themselves the exact same question, “how can we make money online?”

That question is irrelevant for now, especially since the more pertinent question, “why are we not making money online?” is yet to be answered. Placing every bit of information, word for word from a traditional newspaper onto the internet, does not work.

Creating news especially designed for the internet would make the two versions completely different newspapers, one with its own following.

Readers and aertisers are struggling to take Zimbabwe online news sites seriously because they see the content as ‘photocopies’ of the print version and not a different medium with its own identity.

In addition, as far back as 2005, the United Nations stated that 10 percent of Zimbabwe’s then 12 million people had access to the Internet.

More importantly, most members of an estimated population of between 1 million and 5 million Zimbabweans now living outside the country were said to be frequent visitors to these online newspaper sites.

Now there is a population that cannot, even if they wanted to, buy a physical copy of a local newspaper.

They can however be given the choice of paying a small amount to access some sections of online news content.

Zimbabwean newspapers must follow the example set by the Sun newspaper in the United Kingdom by offering some of its content only to paying subscribers.

They can give the headlines and introductory paragraphs for free, just to tease the readers on what they could be missing out if they do not pay, say an equivalent of one or two United States dollars per month.

The Sun has also made its content read-only so as to dissuade users that have a tendency of sharing their content with the ‘freeloaders’.

All of Zimbabwe’s news content from the mainstream newspapers is available online and readers are really left with no reason to purchase the physical version on the traditional street corners.

If the news organisations do not start to limit what they share for free, and if the online newspapers are going to continue to cost money to build and maintain without giving anything back, then there are surely darker days waiting for the information industry in the near future.

Source : The Herald