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Online newspapers and reader gratification: modeling the effects of interactive features, content and credibility among Zambian readers.

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Online newspapers have been in existence globally since 1998 and in Zambia since 1999. They have grown exponentially to establish themselves as a mainstream mass media genre and as the tool and symbol of post-modern life. Yet despite the position they occupy today as one of Zambia’s main sources of news and information, there are gaps in scholarship, specifically in audience-based empirical research dedicated to investigating, analysing and characterising their use and its effect on readers and media ecology. Applying the uses and gratification, network society and diffusion of innovation theories, the study investigates and models gratifications sought and obtained from the content, interactivity features and social functions of online newspapers. It investigates and characterises the outcomes of obtained gratification in terms of influence on readers and impact on the media ecology, specifically on radio, television and print newspapers. The study uses empirical data that are based on perceptions, attitudes and diverse audience experiences elicited through self-reports of 535 randomly sampled individuals in Lusaka Province of Zambia. Data were analysed using advanced statistical tests (Chi-square and regression analyses). The study establishes moderate but rising selectivity, exposure and attention to online newspapers, albeit only among certain demographic groups (e.g. those with Internet access). Readers mainly seek and are generally gratified by: 1. the surveillance (news and information seeking) and socialization functions of online newspapers; 2. content of a general nature, especially politics and governance news; and. 3. human interactivity features. The study further establishes that online newspapers have a strong displacement effect on radio and print newspapers but a weak substitutability (ultimate displacement) effect, which upholds multiplatform media news and complementarity between online newspapers and the old media. In terms of micro-level socialising influence, the study establishes strong surveillance or awareness influence but weak behavioural change influence or effect, which accords with established ‘stages of change’ media effect theories. The study also establishes that readers perceive online newspapers to be only moderately credible. However, it concludes that perceived credibility does not ‘intervene’ in the overall gratification obtained from online newspapers or on their perceived influence on their readers and the extent to which they are perceived as substitutes for traditional media. The study confirms the relevance of all the three main theories – uses and gratification theory, network society and diffusion of innovation – to the study of online newspapers. It also ‘discovers’ the relevance of subsidiary theories, notably ‘reliance’ and ‘familiarity’, to characterising media use behaviour among the respondents.


Doctoral Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.