The Internet and the declining newspaper readership in Zimbabwe

L.S.M Kabweza Avatar

Almost a month ago, the Zimbabwe All Media and Products Survey (Zamps) released the results of a quarterly newspaper readership survey that the organisation carries out. The results are the for the last quarter of 2011 and according to reports  in the media, the survey results showed that print news readership in Zimbabwe has started to decline. While reports refer to the decline as ‘modest’, the writing on the wall is clear, news consumption as we know it has changed.

Newspapers will not die anytime soon. No. Total death may not even happen, but the media business has been heavily disrupted and the effects are starting to be felt here.

As it happens with all disruptions, it’s really about convenience for the customer. The internet has given the customer more options for consuming news. And more importantly, through social media and the countless creation and sharing tools emerging on the internet, it has given the consumers of news means to meaningfully participate in the shaping of news and opinion.

As usual, the incumbents came to the party late. The traditional media houses never really embraced the internet. Whatever basic presence they have there has been the result of a reluctant admission of changing times and not the enthusiastic exploration of the many new possibilities the internet avails. There’s no social media strategy to speak of save for probably just assigning one Facebook savvy guy in the office to create a page for the company.

Now because their efforts have been mired by reluctance, not much revenue has been realized from the internet. In a way quite understandably so. Without means to effectively charge internet readers for content, and little technical knowledge to set up and sell advertising effectively, the internet has just become a new costly exercise. It’s just bleeding them so to speak. The logical reaction has been to allocate even fewer resources to it.

Take the Financial Gazette a popular local weekly paper for example. Frustrated by the low revenues coming from the internet version of the paper, they now post all news to the website a week after it’s published in the print version. Needless to say, by the time they post the articles online, it’s either not news anymore, or the opinion articles have been overtaken by events. The Herald, NewsDay and Daily News, the three major dailies in Zimbabwe, approach this in a better way. They usually post some of the articles (yes, not all) in the evening the news that’s being printed for the next day. But even this is still way slower than the internet works.

Allocating few resources to the internet platform also means the internet version becomes just that, a stripped down version of the physical paper; the articles that make it online are all in the paper as well, word for word. It means therefore that if as a customer you read the physical paper, there’s just no point checking the website. The strategy is clearly to keep the internet version under check, lest it renders the physical paper irrelevant for a huge group of readers.

Unfortunately, allocating fewer resources to the internet is not the answer. It just further alienates the brand from the product they sell the advertisers; the readers. Now the problem with the internet is that, unlike print, the news and opinion sources are not in short supply. There are many websites providing news that when readers find their favourite newspaper has chosen to not update their site, they don’t rush to by the physical version, they just click away to platforms that have the latest news.  And most times they don’t even need to click very far; their Facebook wall is already full of news updates and links to breaking news and interesting opinion articles posted by content creators that have an understanding of how the internet works.

And it’s not just Facebook; it’s Twitter, the blogs, Google News, NewZimbabwe and the dozen other news sites founded by Zimbabwean journalists in the diaspora. The one thing these new sources have in common is giving out updates in real-time. They don’t wait for the the daily print cycle to post updates. They certainly don’t wait a whole week. News is shared as it happens. Readers participate immediately by saying their opinions in the comments and sharing the news on social media platforms, dramatically increasing the reach and influence of these websites.

Take the Gwisai sentencing two days ago for example. Zimbabweans local and abroad regardless of political leaning where curious to know the sentencing of the activists. The internet-only news sites posted the sentencing soon after it was handed down. The 3 local dailies didn’t update their websites, they waited until the printing press started. They, again understandably so, felt it didn’t make sense to preempt themselves, especially using a platform that doesn’t make them that much money anyway.

But that there is the problem.

If they don’t compete against themselves, their online against their print, and allocate enough resources for the online to compete aggressively, the competition will still happen but it’ll be their print against NewZimbabwe, Facebook, Twitter and the plethora of other online source for news today. And there’s no prize for guessing who will emerge the winner from it. There have been strong suggestions that it makes more business sense to disrupt your own business by letting a new separate business unit compete against and even beat your older business units than to wait for the outside competition to come eat your lunch.

The solution to the problem is not an easy one. It’s difficult to imagine the papers making as much cash online as they currently make selling news on paper. From competing directly against 5 print newspapers for eyeballs, they now have to compete against hundreds of publishers, news aggregators, social media platforms and new internet things you don’t even understand.

The first step of course is to embrace the internet and to stop treating it like an annoyance. The acceleration of Zimbabwe’s internet penetration growth will only increase. Options for the news consumers will keep increasing. The devices they consume content on will keep changing and the need to change delivery methods will be required a lot more frequently. Technology will keep disrupting the media business and it will happen ever more aggressively; the ‘IC’ in ICT stands for ‘information communication’ for a reason.

The traditional media companies have to understand they need equally aggressive information tech divisions, or business partners, consultants (whatever you want to call them) to help them navigate and make sense of this new connected world.  And lastly, an easier said than done recommendation here; they need to start disrupting themselves. If not to deliberately disrupt themselves, at least they need to strategise to start getting some meaningful revenue from the new platforms.

What’s your take on the issue? Please share in the comments below.



  1. The Eye

    Any Newspaper can launch an Online Edition. The million dollar question is how do they make money off that website! Currently in Zimbabwe not even a dedicated e-commerce website can make money online mainly because we do not have access to online direct payment platforms like Paypal among other factors.

    Although the benefits of having an online edition are pretty clear such as significantly cutting down production costs  and being able to update content regularly.

    1. Benedict Nyathi

      I think if we could localize advertising, forget about paypal because it doesn’t exist in Zimbabwe, have our own advertising agencies were we can pay each other in Zim Dollars….lol, then we can break into the online media. 

    2. Prosper Chikomo

      Currently in Zimbabwe not even a dedicated e-commerce website can make
      money online mainly because we do not have access to online direct
      payment platforms like Paypal among other factors.

      People who have never used Paypal overemphasize how rich it can make
      them. Believe me, there are millions of people who have Paypal and are
      failing to get even one customer.

      As for using Paypal in Zimbabwe you can read more here:

  2. Benedict

    The decline in offline readership started a few years when internet
    became more interesting, more informative, more entertaining, more engaging and
    more prompt than the offline media. Gone are the days when you had to wait for
    the morning press to confirm the breaking news. People have internet connection
    almost everywhere and anywhere.  Even the
    desktop internet users are declining, Facebook revenues are declining because
    access to the internet is no longer restricted to an internet café, a hotspot,
    office internet or your home broadband but can be accessed anywhere anytime
    using your mobile phone.

    As for facebook, their advertising reach is still on the
    desktop. They are yet to introduce mobile ads and that implementation has to be

    As for the local newspapers, they need to forget about the
    online readership affecting the offline readership. The best approach would be
    to treat these two as separate businesses. The offline marketing team should concentrate
    on delivering their newspaper on time, with real stories and in almost every
    corner of the street. This will restore confidence to their offline advertisers
    and readers.  Offline media is not dying
    soon, it might last a lifetime, and it’s just the approach that will make it
    survive. My grandfather still reads his chronicle every morning. We are always
    on the same page when it comes to what’s happening even though I read it from
    the internet. But sooner or later 70% of newspaper consumers are going to be online.
    Long term plans for online readership should be their main focus instead of sabotaging

    I think the said newspapers adopted a wrong approach from
    the beginning. Maybe they used the same guy who has been enjoying bonuses from
    offline readership to promote the online newspaper when the internet only for
    the rich. Publishing news after 3 days is rather immature when the other
    publisher is ready to publish as soon as the events occur. The eager publisher
    is more trusted by the readers and once he is known for publishing news as they
    happen he will gain more repeat readers leaving his competitors who wait to
    sell the news offline first before going online in the dust.  The internet has changed the rules of the
    game. If they don’t change technology will wipe them off the face of the earth.
    News has to be published like tweets. If you are 30 minutes late your news is
    stale and that means no visitors and no advertising income.

    The other issue that I think is discouraging local
    newspapers from promoting online readership are the pay outs from online
    advertising partners like Google.  You will
    need a strategic approach if not black hat approach to get a fat pay check from
    Google Ad sense yet advertising dollars spent advertising the same website were
    you have your Google Ads are spent before you blink.  It’s advisable to get a local advertising
    agency that will promote them to local companies once the consumer confidence
    has been restored.  They should also
    promote their own papers online. The social media tools will help them start
    off on a low budget.  They should also
    consider a banner exchange with sites like techmzim that are currently enjoying
    online readership.  Also renting a tagline
    for breaking news might have a positive impact.


  3. Raymond Swart

     I agree completely that the prints need to compete
    against themselves with the online version in order to survive and
    evolve into the next generation. There will always be a place for print
    the key for them I think is figuring out what is ideal in print and what
    is ideal online. They are not the same platforms and therefore can not and should not be treated as such.It
    does however give hope to those aspiring reporters who are tired of
    working for these media houses and with a bit of work they could
    spearhead the Zimbabwean Online news revolution. If done properly and
    with enough patience they will do well! The online advertising will come
    and the payouts will be huge!

    1. Raymond Swart

       I remembered i watched a video on this problem a little while back on TED. If you’re able to watch the video.

  4. JamesM

    Traditional media houses in Zimbabwe thought they could make easy money with the advent of US$ as the country’s trading currency. In the short term maybe, but in the long term they are in serious trouble. Elsewhere on the planet traditional media has plunged online big time knowing full well that their survival deepens on having an online presence. Now the net demands creativity, ingenuity and imagination in attracting and retaining online visitors, something our media houses simply don’t have. And probably never will. Look at media in Msanzi and compare that with our own, what a contrast. Visit and then you will get the idea.
    Granted, bad macro-economics also equal bad online economics. That said should the Zim economy improve and people end up having comfortable incomes, newspapers will be something you carry to the rural areas to answer nature’s unpredictable calls!

  5. Lenox Mhlanga

    Online payment platforms are not a train smash since a lot of the money circulating in the country is outside the banking system anyway. IT whizz kids can set up such platforms if the various stakeholders woke up to the massive potential this holds for business and online papers. I also challenge mobile networks to transform their cash transfer platforms such as Ecocash to encompass this opportunity. In any case most of the banks worth their salt have launched debit cards that are backed by Visa.

    1. Prosper Chikomo

      Ecocash is launching the Pay Merchant facility in the coming weeks.

      But believe me, having a rough idea of how it will work, it will not enable paper newspapers to sell their online content instantly as with credit cards. And besides, Zimbabweans do not want to pay for stuff they can find on the internet. Again, you also need proof of residence, pay slip and a lot of nonsense just to have Ecocash or a Mastercard/Visa linked bank account, which you dont even need in the West. There will be no APIs.

    2. L.S.M. Kabweza
  6. Three Men On A Boat

    While a lot of what is in this article is absolutely true, one thing that has gone down the toilet in this country is the reading culture. People just don’t read. They want little updates on twitter or facebook.

    The newspaper crisis is not just in Zimbabwe. It is all over the world. Even if you put pay-walls how does that stop people from getting news elsewhere. Question becomes how do you convert a significant amount of people into paying READERS!

  7. Edson Charikinya

    There are few stories come out of Zimbabwe to sustain real time online reporting. There is certainly a gap in the market there. Take for instance all the stuff that happens in a day at a place like Mbare Musika. How much of it is ever reported. People want to know what other people are doing. If a thief was caught stealing from a passenger people want to here that.

  8. muzukuru

    me thinks diasporians seem to know more about whats happening in Zimbabwe than Zimbos themselves. 

  9. MaiZedy

    There is need for real true news and not political propaganda.There must be a good balance, not bashing one political party. The news becomes boring. I like NewsdzeZimbabwe coz its continuous and fresh each time i browse I get fresh news and they report blunders of everyone as well as achievements

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