Don't Write That Letter to the Editor - Text Her Instead (And Have Your Say In Namibia)

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Apr 09, 2010

Have an opinion about what you’ve read in the news? Why not text the editor? While many news organizations use SMS to send out news alerts, The Namibian has set up “SMS Pages” in which readers send in text messages to the paper that are then published online and in the physical newspaper.

The Namibian, an independent daily newspaper with news stand sales of 27,000 a day (with an estimated 10-person pass-along rate) and a popular website edition, launched the SMS pages in August 2007.

The SMS program originally started as a way for readers to respond to a small number of articles – the editors placed a mobile phone logo beneath certain stories in the paper and invited readers to text in their responses to it. The program grew so popular that the paper now dedicates two pages of the paper three times a week and a section of their website to publishing SMS responses. The messages cover everything from direct responses to articles to more general quality-of-life comments.

Carmen Honey, sub-editor for the Namibian says, “We wanted letters to the editor, but that only allows literate people to communicate in quite a long way. […] this way allows more people to have their say and it’s quick and it’s simple – everybody’s got a phone, it gives everybody a chance to be involved.”

The Namibian (with the tagline “still telling it like it is”), uses the SMS program to reach out to their wide readership in order to give readers an easy way to share their opinions. Submitting to the SMS page costs the sender $2 Namibian per text (roughly $.02 USD), the cost of a text message. The Namibian derives no income from the program, says Honey.

Honey says that the program has taken off without much promotion, and that the SMS pages have provided readers with a level playing field in which to air their complaints, share their opinions, and promote their interests. In an email Honey writes,

On a technical level the readers have embraced the cellphone medium with enthusiasm. Concerning content, the contributors have realised they can and do approach their elected officials about problems in their areas like service delivery. What is more, the officials, in some cases, have been quick to deal with the issues raised leading to profuse thanks from the writers. This empowers both parties. Readers also know there is nothing wrong with commenting on and even criticising actions of elected officials right up to the President, which they do very politely.

To be honest, we did not really know what to expect but the messages have come thick and fast from all corners of the country and on every topic under the sun.

Even senior Cabinet members, and the Prime Minister, have added their opinions. What is useful now, in certain instances, is that members of the public are suggesting solutions to problems opening the way to national debate.

The SMS pages have also led to some challenges for the paper; although English is the national language of Namibia, there are more than eight commonly spoken other languages. According to Honey, the paper doesn’t have the staff to accept and translate text messages from other languages, so users must submit in English. Also, in an October 2009 controversy, leaders of the political party SWAPO claimed that Namibian publisher/editor-in-chief Gwen Lister personally wrote SMSes that criticized the government. Lister responded in a letter-from-the-editor, “I have never submitted an SMS to our pages and if Ithana remains unconvinced, I am sure that through the ‘Spy Bill’, she can get the answers she seeks. Her allegation though, is an affront to the people of this country who see the SMS pages as an opportunity for dialogue with Government and others on matters close to their own hearts.” Many readers responded in the SMS pages with messages of support for The Namibian and specifically for the SMS pages as a way for readers to express themselves freely.

In spite of the SWAPO/Lister controversy, Honey says the program has been a positive force for both the paper and its readers through the last three years. She says, “It’s gone pretty smoothly. Some people don’t like things, but we offer the full right of reply – if somebody complains about somebody’s X, Y, or Z, we will immediately give them the space so that they can publish the answer, so they can defend against whatever the complaint is equally quickly.” She added that the paper does reserve the right to edit the SMSes for grammar, to make them more understandable, and to remove anything that could be potentially libelous. 

The process for receiving and managing the text responses is fairly simple. Users submit their responses via SMS, and the messages are sent to an online aggregator. From there, Honey logs into the aggregator’s webpage and exports all the messages into an Excel document. She then chooses the texts that she feels gives the best picture of the day’s responses, and edits them if they need it.

She said that one of the more interesting aspects of the SMS pages she’s seen over the years is that the subjects of the texts are so varied. Everything from political issues to complaints about power companies, to thoughts on the national radio and television service come up. She says the paper has also received news tips through the SMS pages, and that they are currently working on making the program more interactive. For now, the SMS Pages are a way for readers to quickly and easily have a voice on national issues. In an email, Honey summed up the goal of the SMS Pages as: “To give as many readers as possible, whoever and wherever they are, a chance to take part in the democratic process by sharing their views at the lowest possible cost.”

Anne-Ryan Heatwole is a writer for

Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Rhodes 


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Countries: Namibia

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