The Citizen is one of the few daily newspapers that showed positive growth in the last released ABC figures of 2011. It’s holding its own in a tough climate for print media; a climate that Gordon Patterson, vice president of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, says will continue to challenge in 2012.
Patterson warned that he is expecting 2012 to “be the toughest year in memory”. He believes “client budgets are not keeping pace with rate inflation. Media owner discounts are declining generally and media owner audiences are declining and becoming increasingly more fragmented”.
How, then, is The Citizen holding its own? Publisher Greg Stewart says that while not wanting to “give away our strategic advantage”, The Citizen’s dropping of its cover price “after extensive market testing on price sensitivity” was a factor. Management took the decision in 2010 to drop the cover price 33% from R4.50 to R3.
Stewart says the paper hasn’t increased that price for almost two years and “added value to the product in terms of content, introduced a new area specific edition and engaged in targeted marketing in various sectors of our target audience” helped build readership. “We are looking to introduce new content as well as looking to introduce additional area specific editions,” he says.
Despite the “naysayers”, Stewart believes “newspapers remain a force to be reckoned with as still deliver a quality audience with disposable income in an environment that keeps the audience’s attention better than any other medium”.
“The average time spent on a web page today is a few seconds compared to several minutes when it comes to daily newspapers. There are many challenges ahead one of which is the need to improve the media research in SA. Another is the very real threat of the protection of information bill (that was passed with much jubilation by parliament recently) and the proposed Media Appeals Tribunal,” Stewart says.
Stewart says while The Citizen is not “opposed to accountability” in the media, “we believe that the newspaper ombudsman in SA is the right place to have this control. We also believe that newspapers should be responsible for their errors and should be held responsible for any irresponsible editorial”.
But, he says, “We are highly concerned that the government is in the process of systematically silencing the media and that we are facing a complete onslaught that will be placing the well being and even lives of our journalists at risk”.
The Citizen’s reporters are trained in all aspects of the Press Code. “We simply do not tolerate any breach of the code. We have internal checks and balances to ensure adherence to the code. All line managers in the editorial department are tasked with monitoring this,” he says.
In terms of advertising, the lifeblood of newspapers, Stewart says The Citizen has not discounted its prices. The Citizen attracts retail and wholesale advertising, as well as legal and automotive ads. “But we have been managing our advertising rates according to our circulation over the past 10 years when no-one else in the industry was”.
“We adjusted rate upward only if we had maintained or grown circulation and either had a zero % increase or reduced rates when circulation had negative growth. This has kept our rates competitive. Some of our competitors over the past two years have had over 20% loss in circulation while increasing rates. We have had negative rate increase whilst seeing our circulation grow,” he explains.
While the paper’s journalists do use social media as a source of stories, Stewart says the medium “doesn’t proved depth” and that reporters have to be aware of hoaxes. “We utilise social media as another media channel and another means of connecting new audiences to our brand,” he says.
The Citizen has an annual intern programme. “We take on seven interns across various departments annually as well as running an extensive training programme that includes post graduate studies for existing staff at the Wits school of Journalism and other prominent institutions,” says Stewart.
While many national daily papers face the challenge of covering stories across the country, Stewart says The Citizen is “most fortunate that we have in the larger Caxton group a massive network of journalists across SA that we can utilise to cover specific regional stories”. And to keep the journalists performing at their best, “we also sponsor an annual prize at the Caxton awards for the Caxton journalist making the best contribution to our news gathering efforts”.
It seems Stewart’s strategy has borne the results he was hoping for. At the time of dropping the cover price, some expressed the cynical view that it simply wouldn’t work. Others wished him well. The Media Shop’s Virginia Hollis told Gill Moodie that “It’s a very brave move… whether it will work, I don’t know but I hope it does. What they’re doing here is addressing a problem (declining circulation decreased ad spend) and they are taking steps to address the problem”.