By Takura Zhangazha*^
The mainstream media in Zimbabwe has generally been functioning in difficult economic circumstances. Apart from competition for a shrinking readership, there are stories and claims of serious viability challenges for media houses. Especially where it concerns running costs such as newsprint, salaries and benefits of journalists and supporting staff.
Not that the media will want to put any of this in the public domain on a regular basis but over the last year, through the government appointed Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI), publishers, unionists and other media stakeholders have publicly pointed out these sustainability challenges. How the same problems, among others, may be addressed with government assistance is something that will be seen when IMPI publishes its report.
There are however issues that the media needs to flag out on its own in its continued engagement of government and in defense of the integrity of its profession. Especially where governments across the globe while sometimes claiming to support press freedom, freedom of expression and access to information are increasingly caught up in anti-terrorist policy actions that inevitably lead to the exact opposite of their stated intentions.
In order to retain its integrity and respect, Zimbabwe’s mainstream news media must strive to retain or regain its editorial independence and adhere to its own professional codes of conduct and ethics. Particularly so in the aftermath of the Zanu Pf congress of December 2014 which had seen state controlled and in some instances, the private media, taking sides in an unprofessional way. Not that the media cannot take sides based on its own editorial values and principles. These must however not compromise its reporting on facts accurately and with the relevant balance.
Editorial independence however is not only in relation to political interference but also due to what is increasingly a profit motive of newspapers and radio stations. Make no mistake, media houses are businesses and are there to not only generate incomes but also make profits for their owners and shareholders. An aspect which in fairer circumstances should lead to better remuneration for journalists and other employees of the same said media institutions.
What has however become an evident challenge is that mainstream print media houses now have to survive almost from ‘hand to mouth.’ This means that daily or publication day sales are a key priority for media houses and these often times can only be ratcheted up by sensational stories that hopefully will ensure publications sell out. Such a reality affects editors on a regular basis and oftentimes forces their hand in deviating from the editorial tradition of the media house.
This fluidity is unavoidable in these trying times for the sustainability of Zimbabwe’s media. But they can be mitigated in part by a coming together of editors, publishers/ media owners and journalist union branches on further expanding and agreeing on editorial traditions of their respective institutions. And by so doing, also establish a clearer nexus between ‘profit’ and editorial principles and values.
Advances in social media and mobile telephony as mediums of news have been in vogue for a while now. In Zimbabwe’s case it is apparent that the mainstream media is still the most trusted medium of news but either way, there is the inevitability of the continued expansion of social media and mobile telephony that needs to be harnessed.
Some mainstream papers have begun the process of doing so but only sparingly for fear of losing out on regular/familiar revenue brought by the main print/physical publications. Given the global shift in business models for media houses to multi- media platforms and pushing numbers on website/social media account visits or followers, Zimbabwe will not be an exception. It however requires a more holistic approach to the value of news both in its physical (paper/conventional broadcast) form and its virtual or immediate accessibility format.
Again this requires greater collaboration between media owners, editors and journalists if news is going to be valued for its content rather than its form. And in tandem with clearer editorial policies the numbers can be played to greater marketing effect. This is however a herculean task that will require diversification of news content from following mainstream politics or fashionable celebrities. This would entail utilizing models of global brand newspapers by way of structure but with sensitivity to context.
Finally, there are many other key considerations that mainstream Zimbabwean media must undertake and act upon. These would also include pursuing legal reforms in a much more unified manner and with concerted application of knowledge of our local context to democratic ideals and universal values of media freedom. But for the purposes of sustainability, mainstream media has to undergo a mini-revolution in the way it approaches its work where it concerns editorial independence, values, professionalism and embracing new media technologies in a less haphazard fashion. Where it fails to do so, its importance as the fourth estate and public interest role will remain tenuous going forward.
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com
^An edited version of this blog appeared in the Thursday 15-22 January 2015 edition of the Financial Gazette (www.financialgazette.co.zw)