The dawn of digital dailies: Not nightfall for newspapers

M. O. Ené

(Spring 2001)

 ABSTRACT

The paper takes a critical look at the effect of digital dailies on newspapering on one hand and readership on the other, especially as it affects the immigrant African community in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. It finds that many more factors are going to keep the online publishing or cyberpublishing ventures afloat. These factors are reviewed.  It agrees that newspapers have to maintain a cyberspace presence to survive, and that cyberpublishers must contain a very slippery readership by being innovative and even clever.

 

 

PREAMBLE

Marketing information online has become big business.  According to Simba Information's new research report(1) the astronomical development of foreign online markets could account for the projected 40.7% - or $28.45 billion - of worldwide online subscription-based revenues by 2003. It is estimated that 93.4 million Internet subscribers resided outside of North America in 1999, but the number of soaring everyday. It is expected to hit 331.1 million by 2003. To reach these people, big businesses may have replicate online what they do in print. As the international online commerce soars, how would the dawn of online publishing be affected?

 

Online newspapers grew astronomically from 1994, when there were only twenty of such setups in cyberspace.(2) Within three years, nearly 4000 have come on board. Today, many online publications no longer have paper equivalents; some, such as Salon.com and Clickz.com started life in cyberspace and remain there. This rapid growth is driven by the great strides in worldwide information technology. With the demise of digital divide in developing countries, many people are scaling over the walls of digital divide to join the worldwide wagon of digital news consumers. With so many people connected and yearning to discard the yoke of data deprived, newspapers have been scrambling to get readers tuned into the supposedly information-rich cyberspace. It accommodates all sorts, of course: the dressed and the deranged.

 

With all these online dailies, are we ready to embrace information overload? How are the struggling small-scale newspapers going to survive in the all-comers cybercommerce where sharks swim alongside eels? Will the important services they provide be relegated to the background and squashed by the big corporations and conglomerates? This paper looks at online publishing or cyber publishing as it affects the immigrant African community in the tristate area, especially the giant of Africa, Nigeria.

 

INTRODUCTON

In a previous study of online cyberpublishing, an integral part of the scientific study of the cyberspace I called “Cyberology 101” (3),I noted the gradual decline of newspapering in African communities in the tri-state region with the growth in online news consumption. Many newspapers targeting African readership were dropping off the radar or scaling down operations. In the New York metropolitan area, two prominent papers emerged in all of 1999: One is dead; the other is limping like the others before it. Except there is more to what we see, almost all African newspapers and magazines in the area are limping badly. Some are all but dead, existing only as a shadow from the eerie dark days of late last century when corruptly rich individuals floated newspapers abroad to promote their political agenda. In Y2K, no newspaper emerged and none is planned for this year! On the other hand, websites appear and flourish.

 

With the narrowing of digital divide, many more people are becoming cybernauts (cyberspace surfers). The first casualty of course is the traditional news business. With a format that has changed little since Germany’s Guttenberg pieced together the printing press, the new information technology has taken everybody by surprise. Its power to change communication is simply stupendous. Computer communication has made impacts on many spheres of human life, but its far-reaching and almost-crushing impact is on news delivery. The effect is so overpowering that courses in journalism include online publishing.

 

In African and other immigrant communities, the emergence of online publishing has the eradicating effect of a total eclipse. In New York/New Jersey greater metro area, where a healthy heaven of African newspapers showed signs of flourishing in the 1990s, decline and decay now thrive. News from the continent is stale before the publisher leaves for the printers. For a community that won’t pay for newspapers, stale and unverified news items lifted from the Internet become one more reason to ignore the monthlies or biweeklies that litter African markets. Even when the papers are free, readers prefer the up-to-date printouts from news websites, CNN, BBC, Nigeriaworld, etc. The direct result is reduced readership of newspapers.

 

CASH CRUNCH

Sponsors have noticed and cut off the considerable “charity” advertisements. With reduced readership comes reduced revenue. Thanks to the large amounts of money passing through Western Union or Money Gram, some papers barely stay alive on ads from these money-transfer services. Unlike the mainstream media that reap the benefits of dot-com-company adverts, cash-strapped African newspapers struggle for the few local advertisers, mainly merchants of small stores and obituary announcements.

 

To stay alive, these newspapers do NOT have to hop onto online publishing ventures. Though cheaper and easier to produce, publishing online does not mean millions of dollars. The cost and ease of web setups mean that anyone can set up sites in cyberspace any day. But why rush to open up shop in cyberspace? The ads are not there mainly because those who advertise can and do set up their own sites and direct traffic to themselves from such search engines as google.com. When ads are available, they are not likely to appear on mediocre, low-traffic sites. When they appear, people have to shop from the page to make it worthwhile.

Heads, they lose; tails, they still lose.

 

CYBERPUBLISHING

Is publishing in cyberspace necessary? Are we leaving behind print-delivered news only to be greeted with packaged news delivered by electronic publishers delivering digitized dailies? Where is the freedom the Internet promised? Has the information rich cornered the freedom? Where are the simple but sleek superhighways? Why and how would the small entrepreneur set up shop without being crushed by the big wheelers?

 

The first question should be: Why do we communicate; do we need to communicate?

 

Simple, we communicate to express ourselves, to answer questions, to advocate actions, and to exchange ideas. In the process, we achieve some concrete goals: educate, entertain, inform, and persuade. This is a very serious business because our ability to communicate effectively is a reflection of our credibility. It is not always what we say, it is how and where and when we say it. The forum of communication is very important; it affects our ability to give and receive information. Needless to add that information is knowledge; and knowledge is power. Therefore, a medium that promises to level the playing field cannot be seen to be stifling a virile segment of the global village.

 

COMPARATIVE ANALYSES

An evaluation of four major Nigerian publishing sites [amebo.com, gamji.com, naijamall.com, nigeriaworld.com] shows that Nigeriaworld.com maintains an allure that is unmatched. These are all cyber-based publishing outlets. The African-based media with web presence are not considered. Since more communication is not the same as better communication, I will reserve specific findings for another forum. As I submitted in “Cyber[o]logy 101,” to match and surpass the flagship of Nigerian publishing online will require some work and serious innovations. Interestingly, the No. 2 site (in my evaluation criteria) has incorporated some of the features recommended in the aforementioned paper, but I doubt the audience is equipped to utilize the obviously upscale technology. The third site will eventually catch on if it tows a tabloid path in keeping with its tittle-tattle name. The last caters more to regional interests and will eventually remain so, no matter the countrywide pretensions.

 

But this is not a comparative analysis of the websites, three of which shall remain unnamed here. The question here is: What does the dawn of digital dailies denote in publishing? We sure need an organized and credible news delivery system both in print and on the web, but who is going to do harvest the news that interests if no one is paying for it? Should it be just what we are feed by the news agencies?

 

Max Frankel wrote in The Nirvana News4: “Unfortunately, the economics of newspapering are not easily replicated on the Web. Newspapers draw three-fourths of their income from advertising and must derive about half of that from classified ads -- the very ads for real estate, jobs and cars that will be the first to depart to the Internet and flourish there without being married to news.”

 

The likely scenario is already becoming evident; it portends the death of good, old journalism and the dearth of in-depth new analyses. Almost all Nigerian news websites reproduce news from the same news services and outlets. There is very little if any in-house newsgathering. So, it is to everyone’s interest that the print media survive or we would have to scavenge the cyberspace for cheap chaffs.

 

NEWSPAPERING

For quite some time now, I have been telling publishers in my neck of the American woods to reinvent themselves. Every newspaper does not have to report every major event on its front page, no matter how stale the news. Local paper must admit that they cannot cover the world; they should concentrate on local news and startling photo panorama. They should target local advertisers, and they should maintain a stable of good writers, and -- if possible -- syndicate the writings to newspapers and websites.

 

Some papers still suffer from identity crises. One day, it is “Nigerian” or “Ghanaian”; the next month, if a major consumer wants to reach African market, they become “African.” The day the advertiser pulls out, a new name could emerge. The best bet is to avoid nametags, unless where absolutely necessary. In fact, I am against using “Nigeria” or “Cameroon” or “Ghana”; these colonial names could disappear or change. Anything that could pull down or localize a news organization must be avoided, even the term “Africa.” Newspaper houses must remain the training ground for future writers, not a cemetery where good intentions fizzle away on the altar of advertisement logistics. One way or another, the African community has to figure out a way to help pay for its local newspapers.

 

SUCCEEDING IN CYBERSPACE

The cyberspace is a new worldwide infrastructure. It is still a very fluid situation out there; almost anything is possible. Nigeriaworld is defining African online publishing. What makes it work? Does it work? It is popular, so it works. It works because it came at the right time to mop up the still-active newsgroup retirees who needed a new canvas for their creativity and a wave of cybergreenhorns. It works because of the quality of its write-ups. It works because the news items are up-to-date. It works because of live links. It works because of its configuration, connectivity, content, color coordination, etc.

 

These and many more factors are going to keep the cyberpublishing venture afloat. Eventually, cyberpublishers are going to retain regular writers with solid following, writers you want to read. There is a certain plateau where op-ed writers develop selective writer’s block or a blasé attitude. As a friend has noted, poaching or sharing of writers will “commonize” their deliveries. In addition, cyberpublishers will have to source out news or enter into some form of contract with major news organization on sharing of resources. They cannot depend on untested hands to deliver the real deal. They will have to show a whole lot more to get the required commitment.

 

Some news organizations are already blocking access to their websites. Nigeria’s Newswatch.com has put up a cybergate; access to its publications is currently restricted to paid subscribers. Ngrguardianonline.com prohibited free access to archived materials many moons ago. Postexpresswired.com and comet.ng.com come in fits, and allAfrica.com is stepping up its commercial interests with a new photo-intensive look and news piped in from otherwise restricted sites. Eventually, the drive to beat the competition, to peddle some stuff, to stay relevant, and to follow trends will compel cyberspace setups to reevaluate their presence. Others may cater primarily to a narrower ethnoreligious or nationalist audience; others, mostly rebels without a sustainable cause, will fold up and their sites will die a slow but painless virtual death.

 

FUTURE IMPERFECT

The future does not look good for digital dailies that serve minority communities. While it is definitely cheaper and less technical to publish online, the attention span of readers demand to be entertained and informed as often as they visit. A second visit to a stale site is all that is needed to turn off a regular visitor. S/he surfs and might end up book-marking another site that offers what s/he wants. Cyberpublishers must as hard as early newspaper publishers to stay connected with their readership. Electronic surveillance may be employed to follow readers, though unethical, to find out their surfing habits.

Ad-auditing services produce much more accurate assessment with online publications. It is a myth of online publishing that the more hit a site receives the better. “Only is one is selling bandwidth,” say Eric K. Meyer. It does not really matter how many people saw an ad and how many useless hits a site gets; the important thing is the number of people who bought from the link. Advertisers do not have to pay per page or for whole catalogues; a mere mention of the company will direct the traffic to their own equally impressive websites. It means that the cyberpublisher and the company are in some competition to keep the reader/surfer coming back.

CONCLUSION

All African media houses in America are bound to suffer whichever way the wind whistles. If stricter control befalls sharing of news items, the Time-Warner/AOL or MSNBC machine could gobble up successful sites in sweet deals. Microsoft did it to africana.com and it could happen to any cyberpublisher. Successful sites could charge on a pay-per-peruse basis (not likely) or an affordable annual subscription. Whatever works and succeeds, Nigerians in their typical copycat mentality will follow in droves.

 

For African media houses to survive, they must continuously reinvent themselves. They must straddle both worlds -- real and virtual, as USAfricaonline.com, kwenu.com, and others. The NY-based “The African Eye” made an eyebrow-raising entry into the cyberspace by networking with a cyberpublisher (gamji.com). The trend might continues, whereby print media go into a merger with an established cyberpublisher. As Max Frankel concluded in his piece: “Newspapers must adapt to digital technologies or die. The foreseeable techniques of presenting news are dazzling, but they do not yet point to a reliable stream of income to pay for the harvesting of news. The oft-heard promise of ‘free news’ is an oxymoron.”

 

Cyberpublishers must do some “publishing” to stay connected to a wider audience. Reproducing easy-come essays is not guaranteed to sustain interest; on the contrary, information overload might force some to switch off. With favorite authors’ works arranged and archived, many readers will tend to go straight to what they want to read. The provision of links to news sites is no longer enough to make people stay. In the long run, cyberpublishers must prepare to spoon-feed their readers: If they don’t come to you, go to them -- a sort of push-technology option.

 

Nigerians in particular and Africans in general will eventually get the news they pay for. Hearsay or hardnosed, tour de force treats are not going to come free. And you thought those who said “Ain’t nothing like free lunch” in America were hallucinating. Well, in the long run, cyberspace is not going to be any different from the real world; it could be free, but someone has to put the content there. And that someone, one way or another, is you. Or me. All of us.

 

REFERENCES

1. Simba Information Inc. (2001) International Online Markets 2000: Strategic Outlook & Forecast, Retrieved March 8, 2001 from World-Wide Web (http://www.simbanet.com)

2. Meyers, Eric K, (1998) An unexpectedly Wider Web for the World’s Newspapers. [Published in American Journalism Review Newslink, Week of March 6 through 12, 2001] Retrieved March 7, 2001 from the World-Wide Web http://ajr/newslink.org/emcol10.html

3. Ene, M. O. (2001) Cyberlogy 101: Odili.net nets naijanet, Retrieved from World-Wide Web March 8, 2001 http://nigeriaworld.com/feature/article/cyberlogy101.html]

4. Frankel, Max (2000) The Nirvana News in Word & Images, The New York Times, July 9, 2000.