If you can’t beat them…

BY: Ajoa Yeboah-Afari
If you can’t beat them…
If you can’t beat them…

The shrinking numbers of newspaper buyers continues to give those of us in the print media industry sleepless nights. Anyway, the search for a solution continues tenaciously because the issues highlighted in this walk down memory lane are as troubling as ever:

Earlier this week, the Daily Graphic announced its latest innovation: it is going interactive. Furthermore, as the front page announcement promised on Tuesday, "from now on you can access 'Graphic Live' with your Smartphone and tablets .... newspaper reading will no longer be the same.

“Is this a new dimension that others will have to copy?

Coincidentally, my reflections since last week have been on the declining fortunes of newspapers.

It used to be that in our communities, one of the marks of an educated or refined person was their habit of reading newspapers –usually symbolised by the Daily Graphic.

People would go about with a copy of a newspaper ostentatiously tucked in their armpit or protruding from their briefcase or handbag, announcing to all their special status as a krakye (educated man) or an awuraba (educated woman).

However, I concluded, it appears that these days it is the mobile phone that has taken the place of the newspaper as a status symbol. And now the phone is invading - or should I say conquering - the news space as well! The innovation makes the news available on phone and computer screens.

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For latest news in Ghana, visit Graphic Online news headlines page Ghana news page

So effectively has the mobile, or cell, phone conquest been that practically every second person one meets has at least one phone. Where formerly the main streets of most towns, could boast of at least one news-stand, now newspaper kiosks and table-tops have been replaced by mobile phone and top-up cards sellers.

If you come from a farming area, as I do, now when you make a call home to a relative, they will most likely be speaking to you from their farm deep in the forest if the reception is good.

While I have no survey results to quote, even in Accra, it is noticeable that beyond the city centre, one can go for long stretches without seeing a single news-stand.

In some towns the few copies of newspapers that part-time newspaper vendors distribute are sold on subscriber-only basis as they don’t want to risk taking supplies they will not be able to sell.

Sadly, the absence of news-stands has become so normal that apparently nobody even questions it. Some former vendors cite drastically declining sales as their reason for opting out of the trade.

It is interesting that not too long ago, the topical issue was that the print media were being overshadowed by radio. Radio was the enemy! And in Ghana the spread of radio has been truly phenomenal.

Caught between the radio and the mobile phone offensives, one wonders what newspapers will have to do to survive. Or, is the Graphic's new direction the remedy?

Maybe this innovation is the strategy to adopt in order to catch those whose world now revolves around their mobile phone, by compelling them to get the news via their phones. Well, the saying is that if you can't beat them, the solution is to join them.

Today, the old joke that if one wants to hide something from a Ghanaian one should put it in a book seems also to apply to newspaper-readership.

If anybody wants to hide information from a Ghanaian, your best bet might be to publish it in a newspaper - unless a radio station picks it up for discussion by its morning show panellists, of course.

Personally, I find it very disheartening that increasingly, even people who need to be well-informed by reason of their work or position in the society demonstrate, or confess unashamedly, that they don't read papers.

While some attribute economic reasons for cutting newspapers out of their personal budget; others say they have lost confidence in the media; or that they get all their news from the radio; or that they find the print reports in particular uninspiring.

To my mind, this situation should be a worry to everybody, especially the Government, policy-makers and opinion leaders – assuming that they are reading this!

Undoubtedly, in Ghana, as in other countries, the print media is under serious threat. However, some would argue that this is not a new phenomenon: worldwide the death of the newspaper has been predicted many times, notably with the advent of 'new media', but somehow, the newspaper continues to survive.

But what has to be acknowledged is that here the increasing cost of production has been forcing up the price of newspapers very dramatically, such that many have to choose between buying a paper and buying kenkey or bread. And, undeniably, what makes it easier for people to give up the newspaper habit is the proliferation of radio stations.

Yet, ironically, in this country, radio content is based mainly on what the newspapers publish. Most radio stations in this country do very little original work.

Admittedly, conversely, the radio is so powerful that it is able to popularise papers that otherwise nobody would know about.

A newspaper with a circulation of, say, only 200 copies in Accra, can be made to appear national if only it can get one of its news items reviewed on a popular radio programme.

The gravity of the loss of newspaper sales and readers lies not just in the impact on the sustainability of the print media but, equally, has serious consequences for the country, because in the final analysis it is about Ghana's development.

For, in recent times concerns are increasingly being raised by observers also about the low interest in reading of the populace, notably the youth.

If people neither read books for pleasure nor read newspapers to keep up with current affairs in-depth, then where are we headed?

Clearly it means that once people complete their schooling, apart from documents related to their work, few people read for enjoyment or self-improvement.

What future do our creative writers and our book industry have? And what is likely to happen to one's ability to read if it is not practiced? Will it not atrophy or be lost over time?
This situation bodes ill for the country because reading is the acknowledged path to enlightenment, refinement and advancement.

What progress will any country make with growing numbers of poorly educated, ill-informed and unenlightened people? This is highly disturbing, to say the least.

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(This column was first published in the issue of Saturday, October 26, 2013)