Many news organizations use SMS to send out news alerts, but the Namibian, a daily paper in Namibia, has set up pages in its print edition and on its website to publish text-message letters to the editor submitted by readers.

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

The SMS program originally started as a way for readers to respond to specific articles. The editors would place an image of a mobile phone beneath certain stories in the paper, and invite readers to text in their responses. The program became so popular that the paper now dedicates two pages of the print edition three times a week, and a section of the website, to the SMS responses. The messages cover everything from direct responses to articles to more general quality-of-life comments.

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“We wanted letters to the editor, but that only allows literate people to communicate in quite a long way,” said Carmen Honey, an editor with the Namibian. “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 uses the program to reach out to the community, and to give readers an easy way to share their opinions. Submitting to the SMS page costs the sender $2 Namibian per text (roughly US $.02), which is the typical cost of a text message. The Namibian derives no income from the program, according to Honey.

Citizens, Government Leaders Send Texts

Honey said the program has taken off without much promotion, and that the SMS pages have provided readers with a level playing field on which to air their complaints, share their opinions, and promote their interests. Honey expanded via email:

On a technical level the readers have embraced the cell-phone medium with enthusiasm. Concerning content, the contributors have realized 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 criticizing 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.

Texting a Controversy

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 other commonly spoken languages. According to Honey, the paper doesn’t have the staff to accept and translate text messages in 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 to 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 with text messages of support for the Namibian, and cited the SMS pages as a place where they can express themselves freely.

In spite of the SWAPO/Lister controversy, Honey said the program has been a positive force for both the paper and its readers over the last three years.

“It’s gone pretty smoothly,” she said. “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 messages for grammar, in order 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 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 she feels gives the best picture of the day’s responses, and edits as needed.

She said one of the more interesting aspects of the SMS pages is that the texts are so varied. People write about everything from political issues and complaints about power companies, to thoughts on the national radio and television service. She said 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. Honey summed up the goal of the pages as being, “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.”

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