SA newspapers need more than one magic bullet to survive

As the wind of change continues to howl, interesting journalism on different platforms will continue to be in demand. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

As the wind of change continues to howl, interesting journalism on different platforms will continue to be in demand. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)


The person who finds the magic bullet to make newspaper circulations soar again would become famous for eternity. In research done all over the world by media companies and academic institutions over the past two decades, no one that clever has emerged.

There may be no magic bullet, but there are slivers of silver linings in South Africa’s newspaper mediascape, which ebbs and flows.

We have heard for 10 years that newspapers are dying, but we still see them on the streets and in the shops, and hundreds of thousands of us still buy them. They are dying, but in South Africa the death is slow – the most recent audit shows an overall decline of just 2.8%.

This is unlike Europe and the United States, where broadband, iPad, and mobile news editions are ubiquitous, and the deaths of hundreds of newspapers have been quick.
Some surviving but not thriving European and US papers are using tricks to bring in revenue – instructing journalists to get involved in the “business of journalism”, events and functions, micropayments for digital subscriptions, and native advertising that blurs the distinction between advertising and editorial content, among others. The Chinese wall that once kept ownership, management and editorial functions separated from each other is crumbling fast.

  The most recent research on South Africa’s situation is Wits Journalism’s The State of the Newsroom South Africa 2014 – Disruptions Accelerated. It sees that we live in an age of platform agnosticism and experimental promiscuity.

News consumers aren’t brand-loyal any more. They want their news anywhere, any time, on laptops, mobile, iPad or smart watch. Such technological inventions for news, including the use of social media such as Twitter, trash past patterns that include reading yesterday’s news in your morning paper. Today’s morning paper has to contain today’s news, with insightful analysis, at least, or it’s irrelevant.

On the question of the magic bullet, the State of the Newsroom research shows digital managers being cagey about disclosing revenue from digital subscriptions. It was whispered by one manager that no one was making money from experimental paywalls. Paywalls, part-paywalls and subscription models often do not work to pull in new readers.

  The fact remains: there is an overall decline in newspaper circulations in South Africa, even though the rate is not speedy or steep. The most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation results (July to December 2015, compared with October to December 2015) counts all 347 newspapers (28 dailies, 12 weeklies, 27 weekend, 53 local, four hybrid, and 223 free). Circulation has increased for one or two papers – The Times went from 100 363 to 109 484, a small increase was noted for The Star (84 772 to 85 567) and Soccer Laduma went from 289 739 to 328 336. As far as weeklies go, the Mail & Guardian increased from 30 286 to 33 213.

The decline in the developed world, especially Europe, is steep. In the US, more papers have shut down than have remained viable. There is significant growth, however, in parts of Africa and in India and China, where literacy rates are increasing.

In South Africa, the facts are that the 2008 economic downturn affected newspaper circulations – and digital disruption, with no revenue model, played a role in the decline. This has led to hundreds of retrenchments. According to Jos Kuper of Kuper Research media consultancy, news consumption is growing, especially among the youth – but not from newspapers. They tend to read it online for free.

So what’s the answer? There isn’t one. The “solutions”, according to international research, are multiple. Newspapers should be experimenting with a variety of strategies to survive. In South Africa, newspapers need to invest in:

  • Subeditors, who are responsible for ensuring the correct grammar, spelling, house style and tone of the published work. But apparently editors are firing subs for “streamlining” purposes (read cost-cutting);
  • Accurate and ethical journalism, which the public feels it can trust;
  • Niche focus areas. Investigations or business, for instance, are more likely to survive;
  • Diversifying their product offerings and desisting from putting all their words into one basket. Those who learn how to do journalism on different platforms – such as video and social media – will fare better;
  • Producing really good analysis with real experts and not just anyone who has an opinion; and
  • Narrative journalism – telling a story rather than shooting off binary oppositions in the drab old he said, she said formula is a skill all journalists should cultivate.

Newspapers must stay away from desperate and arguably deceptive measures such as native advertising.

Finally, they have to creep out of their comfort zones to service an ever-growing platform-agnostic readership. As the wind of change continues to howl, interesting journalism on different platforms will continue to be in demand.

  Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand

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