9 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Hard Choices in the Digital Age


Martal L Dosa says, "The main determinant of the effectiveness of information transfer to a developing country is the ability of the intermediary -- individual or organisation - to blend the information process with the culture of the particular society."

The information revolution was one of the trademarks of 2012. The winds of change blew across every corner of the globe. It is not only transforming the information heartland, but it is also radically changing the way we do things.

Thus in my view, the decision by Newsweek magazine to print their last paper edition in December before they fully went digital was one of the year's major events.

After 79 years, the magazine's publishers made this decision. As someone who started reading the magazine when I was still in grade school, it was a painful pill to swallow.

Although I have occasionally been reading both the digital and paper-versions of the magazine, I always liked the idea of choosing the format I preferred, depending on where I am. Not anymore! And, there is no doubt that Newsweek's pacesetting trend will be the beginning of the end as a host of other publications, be they magazines, newspapers and/or books will follow suit. It might not be soon, but that change is inevitable. It is a change that cannot be wished away.

But, it was also a decision that said that we have finally arrived. We can resist it, but at the end of it all, we will be counting the costs and/or losses. You have to choose whether you want to be a loser or a winner in this new game of mutation.

I also believe that this goes for publications in the Zimbabwe. The digital age is knocking on all publishers, readers and/or consumers' doors.

Some day in the future, readers will feel nostalgic as they read something like this: "The Herald newspaper, which was established in 1891 will cease publishing its paper edition, but will forthwith start publishing digital formats on various platforms".

Not only was Newsweek's decision unprecedented and revolutionary, but it made me realise that with digitalisation, we were entering a world so different from what we have all been used to, a world which would radically change the modus operandi; a world that would redefine lifestyles in every facet of life.

This is a world where those that snooze will lose out completely. It is also a world where a lot of yesteryear beauties (publications and their publishers) will be buried and never to be resurrected, while more beautiful ones will be born.

For those with wisdom like Newsweek publishers, they will make the painful decision, transform and come up with a different format that is in keeping with these ever changing digital times.

You could be a scribe, reader and publisher - compare and contrast your situation with that of Newsweek. Are there warning signs from Newsweek that should force you to adjust your current situation? How would you do it? Do you have the know-how and capacity?

Reuters reported last December: "Newsweek, one of the most internationally recognised magazine brands in the world, will cease publishing a print edition after nearly 80 years.

"The decision to go all-digital underscores the problems faced by newsweeklies, as more consumers favour tablets and mobile devices over print in an increasingly commoditised, 24-hour news cycle.

"The final print edition of the weekly current affairs magazine will hit newsstands on December 31.

"The move was not unexpected given both the macro changes affecting the magazine industry and, more specifically, the comments made in July by Newsweek's owner Barry Diller, head of IAC/Interactive Corp, about the expense of producing a print magazine.

"Immediately after Diller's comments, Tina Brown, editor-in-chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, wrote a post on the magazine's Tumbler page titled, "Scaremongering," that sought to downplay speculation that it would go all-digital.

"Plans call for the magazine to become a subscription-based digital publication rebranded as Newsweek Global. Its current 1,5 million-subscriber base -- a decrease of 50 percent from its one-time peak of three million -- will be given access to the digital edition.

"A representative for the company said the cost of the digital-only Newsweek would be on par with current print price. According to the company's website, Newsweek's iPad edition costs US$24,99 annually and a combined print-iPad yearly subscription costs US$39,99.

"Select Newsweek content will be available for free on the Daily Beast, which itself is entirely free and advertising-supported. The transition to digital will result in job cuts".

Indeed, any change always affects the job front, sometimes positively; and other times, negatively.

But, it also made me ask difficult questions which we grappled with as students more than two decades ago: Will we ever see an end to the paperless society, and what will it take to achieve that?

We argued that people love books. Books are "friendly" and easy to carry, so, how would that paperless society transform a lifestyle that has been in existence for centuries?

For us, it was an impossibility to achieve a paperless society because there was no way they could move around with bulky personal computers.

Looking at the developments in the ICT area, I laughed at some comments I penciled against FW Lancaster's remarks regarding a paperless society.

In 1982, Lancaster saw no point in building up libraries. Instead, he advocated that developing countries jump from the oral to the electronic stage of communication because he believed that "computers and telecommunications . . . in theory at least . . . provide an unprecedented opportunity for rapidly narrowing the gap between the information rich and the information poor". In December 1994 I wrote, "Too simplistic a view. Lancaster's theories disproved".

I was not the only one who thought that a paperless society was impossibility. It took less than a decade for Zimpost and its clients to realise this hard truth and as e-lifestyles permeate our society, it's easy to see that something is in the offing.

So, are the publishers of Newsweek magazine signalling the real beginning of a paperless and information society? What does this mean for people like me and thousands others working for publishing companies considering that most publishing houses are already no longer operational?

Are jobs under threat? What new skills do people need to be digital journalists and/or writers since nearly everyone has the capability with a smartphone on their palm to do what most newsrooms are doing?

Changes so big also require large capital injections. Where will publishers in Zimbabwe get the funding to transform to where Newsweek is? The flip side is, is it necessary? Can't digital and print complement each other?

Advertisers are major stakeholders for newspaper and magazine publishing companies. How will the already small advertisers' cake be spread out among the thousands of digital publishers on the Internet?

In the past 20 years, we have fast-tracked ourselves into catching up with the developing world, in order to bridge the digital divide.

However, if publishers in Zimbabwe follow Newsweek's model, how many people nationwide will be able to access information in order to transform their lives for the better? The most affected groups are small to medium business people, the urban poor, women and rural communities.

If we argue that mobile phone penetration is a pointer that in fact digital information will reach more people than print, will these people pay for accessing the information? Do they have the knowledge and skills to add value to the digital information they access?

Today, Newsweek and a few other publishers before it have made this bold decision, but publishers in Zimbabwe need to realise that it is premised against some fundamental policies that the United States government has been making in the past few decades.

One of these key policy documents was "The National Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action", overseen by then vice president Al Gore.

Part of the executive summary states: "All Americans have a stake in the construction of an advanced National Information Infrastructure (NII), a seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at users' fingertips. Development of the NII can help unleash an information revolution that will change forever the way people live, work and interact with each other."

Apart from Zimbabwe leap-frogging and embracing these technologies, it is important to ensure ownership of all the processes by the people. And, smart policies are the solution.

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