Over the past few years, we at the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Media Studies department have been monitoring media trends in the province. One of the interesting
issues to emerge has been the proliferation of local weekly newspapers, often referred to as “community” newspapers.
Although they might lack the credibility and authority of mainstream newspapers, they are making such gains in terms of penetration and influence that large media companies are buying into these community newspapers (through shares or takeovers) to broaden their commercial range.
However, there is some debate about whether “community newspaper” is the correct term for them. Yes, they do provide news and information that is relevant to the local readership. Yes, on one level, they do “respond to the local community’s needs and try to promote civic participation and enhance community relations” by featuring upliftment projects, fundraising events, local personalities and companies and their achievements, and offering stories on social and community issues that the mainstream newspapers don’t cover (see !_LT_span style=”text-decoration: underline;” href=”http://www.allbusiness.com/services/business-services-miscellaneousbusiness/4685660-1.html”http://www.allbusiness.com/services/business-services-miscellaneousbusiness/4685660-1.html!_LT_/a!_LT_/span). But are they really “community” newspapers?
Post-1994 Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) recommendations included the establishment of more non-profit community media in South Africa, to target previously disadvantaged communities and encourage skills development by ensuring that local people participate in the running of those media. Thus, they could take control of the content and issues at grassroots level. Sadly, economics reared its head and, because they were funded by grants, donations and so forth, many of those community media projects fell by the wayside due to lack of sustained funding and skills. Subsequently, another phenomenon gained strides as conglomerates (like Independent Newspapers, Caxton and Media24) with the necessary resources to maximise the potential of this untapped market, began taking over from where purist community journalism left off. Enter the local “knock ‘n drop” newspaper with a “community” edge to it.
The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) recorded overall year-on-year growth for free newspapers of close to 10 percent (real growth: 0.1 percent) in the third quarter of 2008.
In KZN there are well over 25 community publications, while the Maritzburg/Midlands area alone boasts more than six. What makes them so popular, apart from the fact that they’re free? Written by reporters and contributors who live in the area, they cover events and issues close to the heart of the readership. They are delivered door-to-door, to shops, schools and malls. And most importantly, they attract advertisers who provide the revenue.
These local newspapers provide a means for:
• reaching a specifi c local target audience;
• localising communication linked to community issues;
• expanding local issues to understand broader national ones;
• connecting consumers to brands and advertisers within
• publicising and gaining support for corporate social
• offering a local shopping list;
• announcing local and national events;
• using local entrepreneurs and distribution networks;
• reaching traders and retailers through localised promotions;
• contributing to regional growth/development strategies (both community and commercial).
The circulation figures for KZN community newspapers range from around 6,000 (Umlozi Wezindaba) to 65,000 (Bay Watch and The Mirror) depending on the area. Advertising costs for black and white main section adverts are in the region of R28 (per column centimetre) and classifieds’ costs average around R8.50 (per line). This makes it a viable option for advertisers – it is targeted and hence cost-effective.
According to the Witness/Mirror website, charities with official registration numbers get discounts on advertising, and there is no guarantee that company press releases are published. However, one of the trends or practices observed is that of corporates partnering with charities or social projects, which in turn partner with local papers as “media partners”. They do this to fulfil their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and investment objectives and, in the process, get publicity. For the newspapers, it is an easy way to generate copy and to be seen to be involved in local social issues. These factors together attract local interest and support.
However, this raises discussion around the extent to which these newspapers are community-driven and how the publishers and/or owners balance their profit motive with community interest. The interplay between the community and the commercial interests forces us to take note of how newspapers could maximise their potential to succeed at achieving both. And, given the ubiquitous power of money, it is perhaps obvious that advertisers are in a strong position to influence the content and goal direction of these “community” newspapers.
But how then do these newspapers maintain core elements of the original “community newspaper” concept? In his thesis entitled, “The credibility of community newspapers in the context of competition, advertisements and profits”, Mauricio Langa, a UKZN Master’s student, is looking into the issue of how media content is influenced by the interrelationship between the media owners, advertisers and government regulation. It would seem that, in order for these knock ‘n drops to function as more authentic community newspapers and trustworthy sources of information, the challenge is to maintain their “pro-community orientation” and make it central to their operations. Content selection should be based on public interest. For example, not publishing stories about corrupt councillors or government officials in order to safeguard their media revenue from government departments, compromises a newspaper’s editorial integrity and negates the public’s right to information. Smaller community newspapers need to stand their ground and not be “bullied” (“Small paper, big victory”, The Media, September 2008) or manipulated by big advertisers, while advertisers need to buy into the community-newspaper-as-mouthpiece ethos, especially in previously disadvantaged areas. Advertisers can also begin to appreciate the rewards for working cooperatively with community newspapers.
To get local people to contribute to the running of the community newspapers, perhaps media owners could form editorial committees with “advertisers-as-role-players” (where advertisers, as part of the community, act in the interest of the community) together with local representatives of the various school, business, cultural, and sport bodies to explore how their newspapers could engage better with matters of social and economic community development, capacity building and other issues.
In 2009, an election year, so much could be achieved by these newspapers in this regard. People like to see pictures and stories about their local personalities, and about what is happening socially and politically in their locality.
Community newspapers could provide readers with accessible, easy-to-read election information, such as featuring different local political representatives explaining their party policies and how they will impact the lives of the local people. With the help of these publications, acting as responsible community newspapers, readers could become informed, concerned and involved citizens. Readers’ responses to localised information could even, in turn, impact the national landscape. This then would see these newspapers functioning in a way that serves their communities while simultaneously nurturing a symbiotic relationship between editorial and advertising without loss or compromise of the integrity of the objectives of true, authentic community newspapers.
Desiray Viney, a lecturer in Media Studies at UKZN, has been involved in the teaching and practice of Media and Communication for 25 years. Her interests include representation, culture, and the political economy of the media. Her research work includes a three-year investigation of the role that the tabloid, Daily Sun, plays in the lives of its readers.
- This article first appeared in The Media magazine (January 2009)