Zimbabwe’s fledgling independent press is to receive another boost with the launching of an independent daily within two months, reports say, but its survival could be at stake because of the continuing rivalry between the mainstream Zimbabwe Newspapers and its former employee Elias Rusike whose company, Modus Publications, will be launching the daily.
Reports say the present Weekend Gazette will be turned into a daily probably in October, providing the first alternative daily since the demise of two other short-lived dailies in 1980.
Zimbabwe had three main daily morning papers in the 1960s until the black-targeted Daily News was banned. There was also an evening paper. The Herald and The Chronicle have dominated the daily press for a century.
Plans to establish an independent daily at independence were foiled by the new ZANU (PF) government which argued against its launching as it was going to be foreign funded. Their argument was bolstered by the fact that the then existing dailies, The Herald and The Chronicle were at the time foreign controlled as a South African Company, Argus, was the major shareholder in the then Rhodesia Printing and Publishing Company. Control of the company only changed in 1981 when the government, through the Mass Media Trust and through a donation from the Nigerian Government acquired the Argus shares.
Although the Zimbabwe Times which had been started as a pro-ZAPU weekly turned into a daily during the first part of 1980 it died a natural death soon after ZANU-PF swept into power after winning the elections. The same fate befell the UANC-sponsored Drums of Zimbabwe which too was a daily during the election campaign.
The monopoly enjoyed by The Herald and The Chronicle has been unchallenged and despite their pro-government stance their circulations more than doubled and were only halted by the shortage of newsprint.
Things, however, began to change as the independence euphoria that had gripped the country began to wane and the death of socialism in Eastern Europe and one-party rule in Africa gave way to more open debate and political thinking. The economic structural adjustment programme has also had its toll as more and more people can no longer afford the new prices of papers.
Because of the changing political climate, the past two years have witnessed a proliferation of independent newspapers and magazines including the Weekend Gazette itself and the Sunday Times which are now both owned by Modus Publications.
While the introduction of a third daily will provide readers with an alternative, there are increasing fears that, Zimbabwe Newspapers might launch another daily, an evening paper just to drive the new daily out of business.
It also appears Modus may be launching the daily simply because of the current discontent with the present papers, which sources say could be changed by the removal of only one man.
Sources say the Weekend Gazette has not been faring well at all. This the proprietors believe is because it is a weekly and its advertising customers cannot wait until Friday to place their adverts. There are also claims that the paper will strongly be supported by the business community which would like to see a viable independent press created.
What seems to baffling though is that even the highly popular Financial Gazette which is owned by Modus has failed to break the 30 000 circulation barrier yet The Herald, despite what people say about it, still sells more than 100 000 copies a day. The Weekend Gazette is reported to have a circulation of about 60 000. This is despite reports that it has a massive circulation network which sources say is better than that of The Herald.
Besides the bitter rivalry expected to surface between Zimbabwe Newspapers and Modus when the daily is launched, there are also fears that the new daily, could turn out to be no different from the present papers.
Observers base this on the fact that as a weekly at times the Gazette has not come up with exclusive stories when it had more time to hunt for such stories. They also argue that as a daily, the new paper may be forced to chase the same stories as the existing dailies. This could overstretch the new paper as Zimbabwe Newspapers has teams of reporters in Harare, Bulawayo and Mutare who share copy.
Observers also argue that while Modus may have the necessary staff to man both its advertising and editorial departments it may be incapacitated by inadequate telephone lines. Their lines are already congested as it is and there are fears that there could be chaos when the paper becomes a daily unless they are given extra lines.
The launching of the new daily will, however, not only provide an alternative news source but is also likely to lead to price battles as the papers struggle to attract or keep customers. While the Weekend Gazette has been selling at $1.00 and The Herald at 30???? cents, there is no doubt most readers would not be able to afford to pay $1.00 daily. This could therefore force the new paper to sell at less than 70 cents, which in turn could force Zimpapers to revise its prices downwards.
Another major factor will be the size of the papers. With competition and people increasingly going for value for money 12-page papers are likely to attract fewer people unless they really have sensational news.