Digital journalism renaissance looms

VINCENT Kahiya, the Editor in Chief of Alpha Media Holdings (AMH), publishers of two weeklies and two daily papers in Zimbabwe loves to share a story about how some journalists in the 90s could not cope with the changes the computer brought to the newsroom.

John Mokwetsi

TYPEWRITER

“Top journalists quit the profession and moved on to other things because a computer was too much of a complicated device,” said Kahiya. “The typewriter was what they wanted and if someone was to change their routine, it was time to leave and they did.”

The computer in the 90s in Zimbabwe was disruptive to the practice of journalism, but this was only the beginning of more changes to come that have redefined workflow systems within newsrooms.

The arrival of the Internet ignited a rapid proliferation of new digital technologies that caught mainstream media offguard. But perhaps before zooming on the period of digital renaissance in 2012 using AMH as a case study, a bit of context is important.

Internet and journalism

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Zimbabwe had its first Internet Service Provider (ISP) in 1994 and AMH, that has four newspapers in its stable, was the first to have a newspaper website for their business weekly, The Zimbabwe Independent, in 1999. Back then little attention was given to packaging news for the online environment.

“In those days, we had to put our content on a floppy disc and give it to a service provider who designed the website for us for a fee that was not at all flattering,” explained Silent Kamambo, the AMH Business Manager for Digital Products. “We never sourced for adverts and no one among journalists really had interest.”

In 1999, website management was outsourced and very little attention was given to it the newsroom. Focus was on the print product which raked in the dollars. Other mainstream media houses in Zimbabwe did not have digital footprints and it is not hard to know why.

For news organisations steeped in an old modus operandi the Internet phenomena was novel. Also, very few Zimbabweans had Internet access which gave credence to the concentration on the print medium. To complicate matters, journalism training remained stuck in the past.

The two major journalism institutions in Zimbabwe, the Harare Polytechnic and Christian College Southern Africa (CCOSA), have not reformed with the digital ecosystem that now permeates all facets of the new reader.

At CCOSA, by 2005 journalism students were still being taught typing skills using Remington typewriters. To this day there is no module that deals with digital media at the famed journalism school.

Joseph Katete, a journalist and public relations officer, recalls the training: “In 2003 I had no idea what Yahoo was.I did not have an email or a working idea of the Internet. We had to hammer those old typewriters with our fingers till they hurt for the two years I trained to be a journalist at CCOSA. The sad thing is that when I interned with a big media organisation life was so unbearable for me and many others coming from other colleges. We had to learn on the job from such basics as using Microsoft Word to using search engines.”

Katete’s story is echoed by Moses Matenga, a news reporter with AMH who was at Harare Polytechnic and graduated in 2009: “The computers that had applications like the Internet were made available to the fraternity in 2009 and it was the year I left the institution. I do not remember discussing social networks or social media and their impact on my usage of them in the newsroom. It had to take a lot of self-learning to understand new media. In-house training that is now being media available to journalists is helping.”

Despite these challenges new technologies in the everyday life of journalism has offered journalists in the newsrooms unprecedented online opportunities, including new ways of generating story ideas, as well as engaging and cultivating sources on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

3G and the impact

During the much-disputed Zimbabwean presidential election in 2008, the mobile phone was a critical gadget, but most reporters depended on civil society bulk SMSes to track voting patterns.

Ordinary citizens also heavily used the same platform to communicate on the happenings in their communities. Given a closed public sphere, this was the safest and trusted way to communicate.

But on August 28 2009 there was a national digital renaissance that would be disruptive in the way news is consumed, shared and produced.

This was the launch of 3G technology that allowed subscribers to access Internet on their mobile phones. A sim card that only the previous year cost $100 could now be bought for $S1.

This downward spiral of prices of sim cards in large was necessitated by a Government of National Unity (GNU) that allowed a modicum of normalcy from the pre-2008 political and economic upheaval period. Zimbabwe dollarised its economy in 2009 to arrest the hyperinflationary environment.

The GNU established a Ministry of Information and Communications Technology to focus on ICT growth and development. One of the benefits of that ministry was the laying of fibre optic led by the biggest mobile service provider, Econet.

There was an ICT strategic plan that was set up and saw the scrapping of duty on ICT gadgets like tablets and mobile phones. In 2010 Zimbabwe’s (population of 13 million) mobile penetration had jumped to 60% from just 13% in 2008.

In January 2014, Zimbabwe had reached 100% mobile penetration rate with current statistics stating that 5,2 million people have access to the Internet a huge jump from only 50 000 in 2000. The period after 2008 therefore marked the beginning of a different way of news gathering and a moderate understanding of the digital journey the media was adapting to.

Hayes Mabweazara in his article titled Normative Dilemmas and Issues for Zimbabwean Print Journalism in the ‘Information Society’ Era sums it when he writes: “Like the Internet, the mobile phone has also assumed a central role in the dynamics of the journalists’ daily routines.

Journalists across the newsrooms studied collectively highlighted the extent to which the technology’s portability has freed them from the necessity of physical proximity and the constraining demands of spatial immobility rooted in traditional modes of communication such as the fixed phone.

For the journalists this, among other communicative potentialities inherent in the mobile phone, has rendered the technology an indispensable part of their day-to-day work.”

The modern newsroom: Digital First

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In 2009 Alpha Media Holdings for the first time employed a web administrator with a journalism qualification. This did not mean that a lot had changed in terms of online content.

There was still the practice of shovelware and no specific workflow between the administrator and print editors.

This meant that there was no social media strategy and for the whole of that year no reporter contributed breaking news for the three websites.

There were no social network accounts and advertising was minimal as most clients still preferred the print. Most reporters though had started to use Facebook to source news and Google as a search tool compared to the dependence on paper clippings from the library. A senior editor said: “It is hard to convince reporters to start blogs. The usual excuse is that it is extra work and that it is something you are not paid for. The feeling is that websites were a ‘you should-have’ tool that added not much value.”

The owner of AMH, Trevor Ncube, who also owns the Mail & Guardian in South Africa which has a legacy of being the first African newspaper to go online, was instrumental in changing the mindset. In 2011 he employed an Online Editor and became the first to do so in Zimbabwe.

In 2012 I replaced that online editor and immediately Mabweazara writes about this period:

“In 2011 both Zimpapers and Alpha Media Holdings hired Group Online Editors with a number of evolving responsibilities, including repurposing print content for the Web; using social media to engage and deliver content to their audiences; as well as filtering user-generated content emerging from their websites and readers’ mobile phone SMS.

“Thus, while Zimbabwe has endured a lengthy period of under-investment as a result of a protracted political and economic crisis, it has a relatively reliable telecommunications infrastructure that makes the newsrooms above ‘part of the global information society dream.’

For AMH 2012 was the year of real change as the group adopted the digital first strategy and put more emphasis on equipping their reporters in use of social media.

Being part of the team we introduced live blogging of events which proved to be a popular real time journalism tool readers appreciated. Despite the cost of Internet in Zimbabwe we introduced multimedia and the audio and video hosted on Soundcloud and YouTube and the response has been good. All journalists understand the importance of time and being the first with the story in online reporting hence the use of mobile messaging apps like Whatsapp to file stories from the field.

This innovative use of mobile phones by AMH to live update and record videos as well as audio was recognised by Highway Africa/Telkom in 2013 as one of the titles under the stable, NewsDay was awarded an award for being innovative in their use of new media. Whereas the Online department had one person running it for two years between 2008 and early 2011 now it employs five people and is making more money that one of the weeklies in the stable.

The department is even complemented by its own sales and marketing personnel. The digital first strategy has meant that every reporter is on Twitter and Facebook. But how are reporters using these tools.

Currently AMH is embarking on newsrooms convergence and investing in gadgets that advance the digital media direction is has embarked.

Twitter, Facebook in the newsroom

Most reporters spend more time on Facebook than Twitter. Twitter is still such an intimidating animal to Zimbabwean journalists and the uptake of its use is slow in newsrooms.

One factor that has contributed to its slow uptake is high cost of data in Zimbabwe and the lack of will by employers to assist their newsroom staff in having cheaper data connection on phones and other personal gadgets. There are more conversations on Facebook rather than Twitter. The only Twitter platform we have had so far in Zimbabwe creating more conversations is 263chat.

Twitter is high on pushing and sharing web content. NewsDay has the largest following among mainstream media with about 35 000 followers, but most of the reader engagement happens on Facebook where 287 000 converge to share opinion and current affairs.

A senior political journalist from AMH says: “I know that Twitter is more helpful for what we do as journalists, but I find it to be technical and that most of the sources in Zimbabwe have Facebook pages than Twitter handles. I, however, use Twitter to share the stories I write. I do not have many followers and the scrolling news every second on my feeds is rather disruptive.”
Kahiya, however, said as AMH policy every reporter is expected to be active on Twitter and to share the company’s content.

“We understand that we do not have digital natives among our journalists, but the reason why according to Opera we have the most accessed website in Zimbabwe in NewsDay is because in our digital first strategy that we adopted and vigorously pursue, social networks are such an important element because they drive our traffic. All editors are expected to be on Twitter. It is policy.”

He added: “However, when it comes down to how Twitter is then being used we notice that engagement is still a problem and understanding the use of hashtags and other elements of the Twitter sphere needs training and we are investing in that.”

He is optimistic in pointing out that Zimbabwe has advanced and the consumption of local content that saw the country as the only one in Africa with four local websites in the Opera report on mobile phone traffic-shows that everyone now understands where the reader is.

“In a year, we will not be talking about the use of Twitter and Facebook in newsrooms because we have made noticeable strides,” Kahiya concludes. “Rather we will talk about a renaissance in digital journalism that will be a case study for Africa.”

Article first published in the Rhodes Journalism Review Alive (RJRA)

8 Comments

  1. Very good article. I am a big fan of your website and I also buy your newspaper everyday.

    If you value your freedom, please don’t use Facebook. When you use Facebook, you are its product, not its customer. But there are much more malicious things about Facebook, and WhatsApp as well. Did you know Facebook has bought WhatsApp. They use our data to sell to advertisers and also to spy on the world.

    Please search and read what Dr. Richard Stallman has said about this.

  2. I also think it’s important to point out to use Free and Open Source Software (Free as in Freedom not free as in free beer.

    Free software, software libre, or libre software is computer software that gives users the freedom to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, modify, and distribute the original software (and its source code) and the adapted versions.

    You cannot trust software from companies like Microsoft, because they don’t release their source code.

    A good place to start is to try Ubuntu, which is a completely free and open replacement for MS Windows and all the programs you can get with Windows. Search for “Ubuntu Zimbabwe” or “Ubuntu”.

    Office software etc. It’s all there.

  3. Montgomery Burns

    It is better not to use proprietary software such as MS Windows and MS Office, instead use something like Ubuntu and LibreOffice. The software is free is and freedome, not free as in free beer, and is often called free or open source software.

    Not only is the source code avaliable to you, but it is easy to use, and free to download and distribute to your friends, neighbours and co-workers.

    1. Montgomery Burns

      Free as in freedom.

      1. If you search for the Free Software Foundation it will give you a better idea of what I mean.

          1. Free software developers guarantee everyone equal rights to their programs; any user can study the source code of a free program, modify it, and share it. By contrast, most software carries licenses, patents and agreements that deny us these basic rights.

            If you go to WebDev they will give you free copies of Ubuntu, just bring some blank DVD’s or better yet a flash disk with you.

  4. Jeru the Damager

    Cool, cool I like the idea of free and open source software as well.

    I also think journalists should use open platforms or their own websites and not closed, malicious systems like Facebook.

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