Survival strategies: the case for indigenous language newspaper grants

There should be concerted efforts led by the government and other public-sphere-supporting institutions to provide grants to indigenous language press publishers. Grants would go a long way to stimulate the indigenous language press. Four issues ought to be elucidated here: What would the proposed grant look like? What would it do? What will be the conditions under which it is awarded, and what are its expected achievements? A grant model that journalists envisaged is similar to the Swedish press model (see Weibull 2003). The ‘Swedish model’, as it might be called, did not focus on the indigenous press, but its provisions can be used in the context of the indigenous language press in Zimbabwe.

A special grant can be established that provides funding for struggling indigenous language newspapers so that they do not fold. It can be in the form of a once-off payment to recipients, or of staggered payments distributed over time by an agency. Funds can be mobilised from the national budget, bearing in mind competing demands and the role of the state in serving indigenous languages.

Organisations interested in the press can also contribute to this grant fund. One journalist said, ‘A grant meant to serve the indigenous language press should be administered in such a way that the state or whoever is contributing to the grant sees value for their money’ (Interview in Masvingo, 19 December 2018). Another respondent underlined the urgency of the situation: ‘For now, the indigenous language press needs any financial relief. It’s not easy to be operating the way we do. There is this uncertainty of whether we will have a job in the next few weeks’ (Interview in Masvingo, 19 December 2018).

What exactly would a grant for indigenous newspapers achieve? Journalists have various ideas about how the grant could be used. One said, ‘We go for months without salaries. And when we get them, we do not get them in full. We have families to feed. We need to be motivated also’ (Interview in Masvingo, 19 December 2018). Another participant said, ‘We do not have equipment - cameras, even notebooks. We crowd on one computer, no recorders. A grant will re-equip the newsroom’ (Interview in Harere, 22 December 2018). One senior reporter said, ‘We are lagging behind in technology. A grant is good for us because we may try to catch up with the mainstream in terms of technology’ (Interview in Harere, 22 December 2018). Another said, ‘I prefer a system where we get a grant to improve our distribution networks for our newspapers. Once we do this, I think everything falls into place’ (Interview in Harare, 22 December 2018).

An indigenous language newspaper grant ought to come with stringent funding conditions. A special grant would achieve positive results for the indigenous language press if it prefers newspapers that are able to develop an effective subscription and a functional delivery system for their target communities. A cursory look at the indigenous language newspaper industry in Zimbabwe shows that these newspapers are not distributed effectively in their communities. The idea is to ensure that the grant acts as a ‘carrot’ for newspapers to be effective and efficient. Under the grant system, indigenous language newspapers can be paid a certain amount per threshold for home-delivered copies. The idea is to ensure that as many newspapers as possible are delivered to target audiences. The grant can also be widened to incentivise indigenous language newspapers that cooperate on joint delivery modes, subscription handling, common marketing, advertisements and administration. This will make sure that indigenous language papers - hard-pressed on cash flow - cut out administration and concentrate on news production and reaching the audience. It is easy for these types of newspapers to cooperate in these ways since they do not publish in the same language - they do not compete for audiences.

A grant should also focus not only on saving existing newspapers, but establishing new ones for other indigenous language communities. To achieve this, a start-up amount can be set aside for any new indigenous language newspaper. This will help establish the paper on the market and meet other costs. The grant can be increased if start-up indigenous language newspapers can reach a certain prescribed circulation and readership threshold. If that indigenous language newspaper reaches a certain number of readers and circulation, a portion of the grant can be kept as further motivation. But this should be for new indigenous language newspapers, not new additions to existing ones. Furthermore, a grant can be useful to ensure that indigenous language newspapers invest in technology' - especially digital technology.

A grant would also help indigenous language newspapers that serve a minority language group and are, therefore, not able to attract a sizeable readership and circulation to sustain them. The state would have to serve these languages and cultures too by providing such grants, while these newspapers will always be encouraged to think ‘outside the box’ for survival. South Africa has, for example, the Media Development and Diversity Agency (MDDA), which serves a similar purpose.

The grant can be further complemented by' other incentives that keep the indigenous language press in circulation. This would include, for example, direct and indirect subsidies. Indigenous language newspapers can be excluded from value added tax (VAT) on their products; they can be given tax-free status for purchasing printing materials, and imports related to their business can be designated as duty-free. Another alternative would be to reduce VAT for corporate adverts that appear in indigenous language newspapers. The VAT can be further reduced depending on how many' of these corporations advertise in these newspapers; this is meant to encourage them to continue advertising with them. Weibull (2003) agrees that these kinds of subsidies are usually considered very legitimate in view of the importance of the indigenous language press to public opinion formation.

However, grants and subsidies should be benchmarked against certain performances on the part of the indigenous language media. For example, the subsidy' can be accessed if an indigenous language press provides information in their coverage of events in their immediate communities. They should also provide news that surveys local political power at their community level rather than the current obsession with national politics. Their coverage should focus on ‘micro politics’ - ward, council, district, etc. They should also comment on major events within these communities. Furthermore, it is important to assess whether they' are, in their coverage, mediating communication within their immediate community. Basically, the argument is that grants, subsidies and incentives should be accessed by specific indigenous language newspapers once these conditions are met. These benchmarks sync neatly' with the general functions of the media (see McQuail 2003). Subsidies are effective if they are linked to specific performance on the part of the media, and if their ephemerality is clearly stated.

The grant and subsidy' system explained here may not be a perfect one. But in terms of structure, it might function relatively' well in the long run by saving many indigenous language newspapers from shutting down. Thus, it might help maintain the structure of the indigenous language press by perpetuating their existence under difficult circumstances. Critics will see any form of financial subsidy' as an intrusion into the market (Gillwald 1993; Picard and Gronlund 2003). But there is no problem with a subsidy' system meant to save the most vulnerable of the press industry' with little capacity to attract many readers and advertisers. The subsidy strategy may' need to be evaluated also in terms of its political importance. If the state is able to avoid manipulating subsidy' recipients, the system may enable many indigenous groups to have newspaper platforms in their own language. Politically, a thriving indigenous language press contributes to keeping political debates broad and is a necessary addition to pluralism. A major weakness would be the fact that subsidies and grants may not be able to change market circumstances.

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