/ 2 May 2020

The writing was on the wall for SA newspapers long before Covid-19

In a politically pressured environment for print media
Publications have cut salaries and frozen posts in a bid to survive the disease, but most owners failed to take appropriate steps when problems emerged in the late 1990s.


This week Associated Media Publishing (AMP), which produced Cosmopolitan, House & Leisure, Good Housekeeping and Women on Wheels, shut down permanently — a sad day for South African media. The closure was exacerbated by Covid-19, but the writing has been on the wall for a while. 

I’ve seen dwindling print circulations for various publications over 17 or so years. But the closure of AMP, which counted the globally recognisable Cosmopolitan magazine brand in its stable, brings into sharper focus the print media landscape — in particular newspapers.

Covid-19 has made the struggle to survive all the more difficult. The lockdown has seen newspaper sales drop sharply in an industry that can ill afford such disruption. But it was perhaps the first time the owners were paying attention to the disruption.

Their response: pay cuts, forced leave and threats of job losses after barely three weeks of the lockdown. 

How did this multi-billion rand industry arrive here? To blame Covid-19 would be naïve.

The first sign of trouble in the 1990s was the demise of classified sections of newspapers. Back in the heyday, weekend newspapers were as thick as telephone directories with listings, auction supplements and property sections.

The arrival of Gumtree, OLX and other online classified sites was laughed off. But the ad execs started paying attention a short few years later when they started eating the newspapers’ lunch. Classified sections of newspapers, once the big money spinner, are now single pages for death notices. An omen indeed.

But there was still a lifeline from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. Display advertising remained a cash cow. Newspapers were still the preferred choice for the retailers such as Pick n Pay and Checkers. Ad execs were making cash hand over fist, despite declining circulations.

Then online advertising, as well as programmatic and social media arrived. Now Facebook and Google are now eating the lunch — ironically with content produced by newspapers. And big corporations have cottoned on to social media as an advertising, marketing and engagement tool all rolled into one, albeit a volatile one. 

The point is, buying ad space no longer costs a fortune. Online and social media advertising spend is negligible to what newspapers used to yield.

Still, the owners stuck to their guns and didn’t learn from Kodak’s moment despite newspaper circulations going into freefall as 2010 approached. And somehow editors still regarded daily newspapers as publications of record — the first draft of history. Or more accurately, purveyors of yesterday’s news. It was a romantic ideal that was set to fail. Social media was breaking the stories.

Instead of innovating, editors clung to the idea that news was only authentic when it was in a newspaper. The circulation told a different story. Newspapers then started “sampling” — free copies were delivered to airport lounges and to people who didn’t ask for them.

The owners didn’t want to listen. They expected the same profit margins despite the evidence that newspapers were in trouble. 

But the newspapers that grew their circulation were owned by people who knew this was a long play and that an investment in quality journalism brought rewards. Look at The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Evening Standard. They invested in quality journalism and are now seeing the rewards after just a few years. The Evening Standard became a free paper to commuters on the London Underground. With guaranteed eyeballs, 650 000 copies were put in the hands of  the commuters and advertising yields went through the roof.

The story of the Evening Standard reminds me of an opportunity to reimagine the Cape Argus, the newspaper I grew up with. It was doomed to fail as an evening newspaper when I took over as the editor with 57 staff members in 2009. When I left after the second stint as the editor in 2016 there were 10 employees – including me. Cost cutting was the order of the day.

The management experimented with the Cape Argus in 2012 and turned it into a “quality tabloid” aimed at a younger, mobile market. Advertisers were turned off, believing the smaller size meant less bang for their buck. It also moved into the mornings, eating into the sale of the sister morning paper, the Cape Times.

A few years later, under new ownership, the paper was successfully morphed into a Berliner — something of the size of the now defunct The New Age. Jermaine Craig, then the editor, did a fantastic job of turning the newspaper around and brought the advertisers back. But it wouldn’t last — further cost and staff cuts were again just around the corner.

The brand was further eroded, when the group opted not to sponsor the global event that is the Cape Town Cycle Tour – which people still call the Argus (with apologies to race director Dave Bellairs). 

The number of pages in the newspaper declined while the price was hiked up consistently despite the discomfort of editors.

In my last stint at the paper, I tried to do something different by introducing storytelling, such as allowing students to co-edit an edition at the height of the #FeesMustFall protests in 2015. 

Lance Witten, the paper’s deputy news editor at the time, and photographer Henk Kruger produced an impressive series on homeless people called The Dignity Project. The series was introduced by a homeless man who wrote the front page lead of his experience. Writer Danny Oostuizen, who succumbed to cancer last year, was later employed as a columnist writing about the homeless of Cape Town and the difficulties they faced.

Although these projects were great brand builders, they could not undo the damage. There are no more greybeards in newsrooms. The veterans with institutional memory such as Michael Morris or Rodney Reiners, who could write superb articles about any story, were long gone. 

There are now young, talented people who are paid less to do far more. They must tweet, shoot video and come back to the office to write a few stories.

Everything I see in newspapers these days, with a few notable exceptions such as the Mail & Guardian, I’ve read the previous day on Twitter. They’re still newspapers of record in 2020. It’s not the fault of the editors. The greedy owners have eroded these fine institutions and thereby eroded the Fourth Estate – a key part of democracy.

If newspapers are to turn the corner, they need to be invested in. Bring back quality journalism and the grey beards. Hire decent sub-editors and pay them properly. It is a long play that will probably never happen.

The sad reality is that if newspapers in particular continue on this trajectory, as the vanity purchases of those who want to buy influence, we need to start writing their eulogies.

Gasant Abarder’s debut book Monkey With a Grenade — based on his time as editor of the Cape Argus and the Cape Times, and the inaugural regional executive editor of Independent Media Cape — will be published by Best Red, an imprint of HSRC Press. Abarder is now a writer and communications professional.