So, while many daily newspapers are struggling to keep their circulation, weeklies are generally not. Tanya Farber finds out what is happening in this market. Weekly newspapers are not dying as the prophets of doom might have us believe, but the latest circulation statistics do carry a warning label about resting on one’s laurels.
Social media, digital platforms, new supplements, innovative newsrooms models, niche content and a stronger interest in vernacular language papers are all elements working in favour of the more robust titles.
While the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures show an overall rise in circulation numbers when all the titles are added together, of the 13 published, more than half have dropped in circulation figures and one has since shut down (The Monitor).
Of the remaining five who are on the up, there are two mainly responsible for this overall increase in circulation figures and, interestingly, they are a subject-specific paper (Soccer Laduma) and a regional isiZulu paper (Ilanga). Laduma’s circulation has shot up from 261 814 to 313 106, while Ilanga’s has gone from 102 995 to 138 288. These increases represent a jump in numbers far beyond any of the other titles. The other three on the up include Mail & Guardian, The Post and the locally published Botswana Guardian.
The ABC figures for all weekend papers – some of which have daily counterparts and some that don’t – reveal a definite decline in interest in weekend reading of news. Overall circulation figures dropped from 2 555 478 to 2 456 327.
Of the 31 weekend papers in the country, 24 showed a decrease in circulation figures and, of the seven that showed an increase, again two stood out: Ilanga’s weekend paper (Ilanga Langesonto) and Isolezwe ngeSonto.
Bongani Nkosi, speaking on behalf of Ilanga’s weekly Monday and Thursday publications about the gigantic leap in circulation, says: “Social media has definitely played a role in increasing the paper’s popularity. Virtually all our editorial staff use social networks like Facebook and Twitter on a daily basis.”
He says the newspaper’s mobi site has facilitated communication with readers, and that an improvement in internal communication has advantageously bridged the editorial and advertising gap.
“Everyone knows what decisions are taken in each department. That helps in terms of selling advertising space, because our sales reps have a sense of what stories or features we are working on so they can sell those ideas to the advertisers.”
For Soccer Laduma editor Clint Roper, the paper’s leap forward in circulation is a direct result of the perfect threesome between content, connection and cost when it comes to the niche market of soccer fans.
“As long as you are fulfilling their need for the right information, as long as you connect with them, and as long as you are priced correctly, you are going to be successful,” he says, adding that the team, which works together as a ’tight ship’, is also a vital ingredient for growing success.
The ’connection’ part of the equation is one that joins the dots of the days between the weekly arrival of the hard copy newspaper.
“Social media allows us to extend our conversation from a once-a-week platform to a 24/7 conversation over all our new platforms,” says Roper, “and the idea is not to create separate Soccer Laduma platforms in isolation, but rather for each new platform to be a better experience if you are also engaging in the others. We are in the process of creating structures to help our social media, digital and hard copy platforms work better in unison.”
Another weekly paper that has increased its circulation and, like Ilanga, has gained leverage from the relationship between content and advertising is the Sunday Times. Editor Ray Hartley says: “We changed our magazine into a smaller format TV guide, introduced a Home supplement, and separated our Travel & Food supplement into two independent supplements.”
This, he explains, has met readers’ demand for credible news-driven content on subjects normally covered by magazines, while retail advertisers have “responded positively” to the shorter lead time than what they would get from the said magazines.
“Shorter lead time in these content areas allows them greater flexibility and a faster response time than that offered by magazines,” Hartley says.
He does, however, offer a different perspective on social media than does Nkosi from Ilanga.
“Weekly newspapers must resist the temptation to get caught up in the Twitter rat race and rather focus on producing the big stories and high-quality, thoughtful content,” he says.
City Press editor Ferial Haffajee says social media is just another platform for the high-quality content she prides her paper on.
“We increasingly try to see City Press as excellent journalism produced across a range of platforms, from Twitter to online to print. We cross-promote on the different platforms, and this has been a sea-change for a title that is almost 30 years old and which has always conceived of itself as a newspaper.”
Like the Sunday Times, Haffajee highlights an emphasis on new innovations in the sections and supplements arena: the business section has “expanded”, the arts, review and lifestyle section has been “fine-tuned”, and in October saw “a new magazine for Gauteng readers” being launched.
Interestingly, while the paper has seen a slight decrease in circulation figures, Haffajee says it was expected and is part and parcel of the paper’s “sustained marketing drive to assist the repositioning of City Press as the core challenger brand on a Sunday”.
She says: “Our circulation was always targeted to go down and then to grow. Repositioning is a tough task. But, I am happy to say that the growth phase has started and our advertising revenues are ahead of budget.”
For the Afrikaans-speaking readership, it is the fairly young Sondag that has shown an increase in figures.
Editor Peet Bothma says this is primarily because of the nature of the paper’s content.
“We offer an alternative read for a tired Afrikaans market. We offer true South African tabloid stories and we are unique in the market,” he says, adding that the team has “stuck to its guns not to be a paper of record”.
And, he says, while staff use social media platforms on a daily basis, it has been a “fairly slow growth process” and that the “secret is not to divulge all content over the Web but rather to use a lot of teasers on Facebook, Twitter and mobi to get people to buy the paper product.”
With all these developments in the shifting media landscape, Mail &Guardian’s publisher, Anastacia Martin, offers a sober reminder of the timeless qualities that make for better circulation figures.
“Trust and loyalty are proving to be the key, as media continues to fragment and more and more readers seek content that is trustworthy, knowledgeable, analytical and believable,” she says of her paper, which is also one of the few to record increased circulation figures.
While the paper has been a front-runner in using different platforms to reach its audience, it is clear that engaging with new forms of media may be incredibly useful, but content is still king.
This story was first published in The Media magazine.