In the face of COVID-19 containment measures that have made it increasingly difficult to distribute print newspapers, many media companies in Zimbabwe have begun to introduce their products in digital formats. In doing so, outlets have proven able to more cheaply reach audiences outside their typical distribution areas.
This has been critical, especially in light of the national lockdown, ordered by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa in late March, that closed the country’s borders, restricted inter-city travel and banned mass gatherings.
“All of a sudden, print media companies don't have to sink a lot of money [into] importing newsprint and consumables such as inks and plates,” said Kholwani Nyathi, an editor at one of Zimbabwe’s largest media companies, Alpha Media Holdings (AMH). “AMH took advantage of COVID-19 to invest in platforms such as PressReader that gave them access to Zimbabwe’s diaspora market, which affords them an opportunity to earn foreign currency."
The media group Zimpapers 1980 Limited said in a statement that its digital footprint has been vital in cushioning the business from the pandemic’s adverse effects. The company explained how it responded to the new challenges by migrating some of its publications like Kwayedza, Umthunywa and Business Week to digital platforms.
Online publishing is now the “new normal” for most of Zimbabwe’s print media organizations, acknowledged Njabulo Ncube, the national coordinator for the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum. “It is not only Zimpapers print that have escalated their online presence, but the independent media as well, as a result of COVID-19. This is intended to try and monetize revenue at a time when circulation of the print editions has drastically plummeted during the COVID-19 lockdown,” he said.
Ncube noted that corporations are also slowly embracing online advertising. “A perusal of Newsday, The Standard, The Herald and The Sunday Mail confirms it,” he said. He added, however, that this has brought with it concerns about data costs for readers. “The elephant in the room is exorbitant data charges for digital media consumers to browse adverts and news online.”
Having print newspapers available online is overall a positive development, said digital policy expert Kuda Hove. “Digital editions widen their access, particularly for people who reside outside their distribution areas.” He also flagged concerns about data costs, however.
Dr. Henri-Count Evans, an online journalism lecturer at the University of Eswatini, and a climate reporting trainer, agreed that it’s vitally important for print media publications to take the digital revolution more seriously during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every serious journalist has to think about their future online. This is my argument whenever I talk to journalism lecturers about the online journalism course,” he said.
Evans challenged Zimbabwean print media companies to pay more attention to their digital content. It's no longer a matter of wanting to be online or not — it’s necessary, he noted. “If you look at the readership, Zimbabwe has over three million people living outside in the diaspora. A lot of those are interested in reading about what is happening at home, and these people have the potential to even become a target audience and might be able to afford to buy newspapers online,” he said.
Other alternative digital media outlets such as the Center For Innovation and Technology, 263Chat, Magamba Network, TechZim, Getjenge Community Media and Kukurigo had been sharing and distributing their news content via WhatsApp dating back to 2012. Many Zimbabwean audiences turned to their content during the pandemic.
“We send out an e-paper to the community every Monday to Friday via WhatsApp and it is for free,” said 263Chat founder and storyteller Nigel Mugamu. “Our e-paper gives you a complete news roundup of what has been happening around Zimbabwe, from politics, business, technology, current news, sports, videos and entertainment,” he said.
Zimbabweans have a huge appetite for news content on WhatsApp, according to Mugamu. Today, 263Chat has 29,000 subscribers in total, which it reaches through Whatsapp groups that contain no more than 256 users each, per the platform's limit. 263Chat has also seen an increase in advertising revenue from corporations and local businesses that advertise online.
According to Dr. Henri-Count Evans, the digital revolution post-COVID-19 presents a significant opportunity for the local newspapers who have taken it seriously.
“Zimbabwe has over three million people that are outside the country. Because of the digital revolution, readership has moved online, but that is not enough. Online, things have changed so much that we can’t rely on websites alone,” he said. “Editors and journalists need to push content to the readers through social media sites like Instagram and Twitter.”
Lungelo Ndhlovu is a journalist based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.