Another one bites the dust. That’s what I thought when Newsweek announced that they will no longer produce their weekly magazine in print form. A few months ago, it was Encyclopaedia Britannia, a long running paper encyclopaedia printed in a large number of beautiful well bound volumes that look great on shelves. The entire set of volumes was updated annually.
Believe me, neither Newsweek or Britannica are doing it for the environment. They are not trying to save trees and go green. They are simply trying to cut costs. Information is available online and free and people are no longer willing to pay a huge price for anything that they can get free elsewhere. That is just a simple law of economics. And certainly not in this harsh economy.
The Newsweek international edition had become visibly trimmer. There were days in Kenya when the who’s who read Newsweek and Time Magazine. The magazines were costly and out of reach for the rest of us. Today, even when I can afford it, I don’t pick it up from my vendor unless the topic really draws me, probably because I have an exam. And you ask why?
I’ll tell you. It’s not that Africa has all gone digital. No, not yet. In Kenya, Newsweek is facing competition from paper counterparts. The number of magazines available, on paper, has increased a hundred-fold over the past two decades. If I’m wrong, the figure 100 may need to be revised. Upwards. The shift in Africa is towards local content. And the local content has improved. Writers have graduated from Cambridge and Columbia and come home. They can write as well as those in Newsweek. Business people have gone to Harvard and Helsinki and come back. They too can grace the cover of a magazine.
We have slowly created our own role models. It’s great to buy a magazine with thirty pages with Steve Jobs on the cover. A few weeks ago, he was on every cover. So you buy one. And that’s that. But then we have our own twenty-five year old programmer who has just accepted his first million dollar contract. He has his quirks and we love to read about them. That he never eats in a crowded room. And his superstitions. All his shirts are blue. Suddenly success seems so within reach. We think that if he can do it, so can we. And that’s the magazine that we buy. It costs a third the price of Newsweek and has double the number of page. You ask which magazine would I buy? You do the math.
Digital has its effects on newspaper sales in Kenya. But not to the point of newspapers closing down. There is still a generation of literate Kenyans over 50 who have the means to buy a daily paper and who still don’t read anything online apart from their email. Some are not yet web-literate. Those under fifty have jumped on the web wagon and that means that publishers had better start making plans to transition to the web over the next two decades.
Anything that happens out there in the West, eventually hits us. Many times, we are caught unawares yet we have no reason not to see it coming. If Newsweek and Britannica have gone down, why not the Daily Nation in 2030.
In the meantime, those of us in Africa continue to enjoy sitting in the sun reading a book whose words we can touch.
But I worry. Things are going digital very fast. And if we across the African continent, don’t catch the train on time, we are going to lag further behind. Yesterday, I had dinner under candle light. Nothing romantic. There was no power. If we are not quick to bring power (electric) to our citizens, we will find ourselves in a powerless position where there are no more paper books and we cannot access the digital ones.