If aggregate newspaper purchases are any barometer of a country’s literacy levels — and they sometimes are — there may be grounds for cautious optimism in South Africa. The latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), covering the period July to December 2003, show that a grand average of 148 679 more papers were sold in this country against the corresponding period in 2002, a rise of 2%. According to the ABCs, there are now just shy of four million South Africans buying newspapers on a regular basis.
Almost all of the credit for this encouraging jump can go to a single title: the Daily Sun. The brainchild of Media24 publisher Deon du Plessis, the Daily Sun has grown its circulation by 228%, climbing from an average of 71 742 for July to December 2002 to a staggering 235 386 copies sold for the 2003 period. Launched less than two years ago, the Daily Sun now beats The Star, once the unrivalled champion of the daily newspaper space, by around 70 000 copies a day (at 165 948 The Star‘s circulation grew by less than 1% over the 2002 figures).
The Daily Sun‘s tabloid format epitomises a novel form of newspapering in South Africa, attracting first-time newspaper buyers in the LSM 4-6 bracket. Also in this category is Independent Newspaper’s Zulu-language daily, Isolezwe, which fittingly posted the second-highest circulation gain. Isolezwe grew by 62% to 55 195. The new tabloids in the Sunday market, Sunday Sun and Sunday World, complete the trend with gains of over 19% and 8% respectively.
The newcomer in the broadsheet quality market, ThisDay, notched up a maiden ABC figure of more than 32 000 daily readers.
The Sowetan‘s unenviable position as the big loser across all categories may have something to do with the title being a direct competitor to the Daily Sun in Gauteng. But given that the latter is demonstrably creating a market where none existed before, the Sowetan‘s woes could be more about its own deadline difficulties and a series of protracted ownership negotiations. After more than a year of uncertainty, it was announced this week that Johncom would acquire the title from New Africa Investments. The Sowetan dropped by 20% against the corresponding 2002 period for an ABC of 123 590. The title’s five-year high is 211 630, which was achieved in July to December 1999.
Media24’s City Press haemorrhaged the most among the weeklies, one would guess as a reaction to the credibility gap created by former editor Vusi Mona. It would be difficult to separate the title’s 10% drop from Mona’s publication last September of the false Bulelani Ngcuka “apartheid spy” allegations, which led to the Hefer commission, or from his widely publicised links to a public relations agency representing the Mpumulanga government. City Press shed more than 20 000 buyers for its new July to December ABC of 167 885.
Of course the largest circulating newspaper in the country is still the Sunday Times. The Johncom behemoth is selling an average of 505 717 copies a week, a modest gain of 1 422 copies against July to December 2002. New editor Mondli Makhanya is yet to stamp his authority on the title, and the next ABCs could reveal whether Johncom chief Connie Molusi was justified in axing Mathatha Tsedu (who, coincidentally, has been hired by Media24 to fix City Press).
The Mail & Guardian has also remained relatively static. An average of 632 more copies were sold for an ABC of 37 689, and it’s now up to Ferial Haffajee to take the weekly back beyond the 40 000 mark, the magic number it achieved in the July to December 2001 ABCs (when an average 41 746 copies were sold).
But beyond the individual challenges and the sector rivalry, every newspaper editor should be seeing the opportunities in the overall gains. There are about 640 000 more newspaper buyers than there were in the 1998 July to December ABCs, many of them new entrants attracted by the tabloids. As the theory goes, soon a big chunk should be graduating to the mainstream.
Kevin Bloom is editor of The Media magazine