Afrikaans newspapers are struggling more than most in a tough market. Chris Moerdyk maintains they must stop trying to determine what their readers want and give them exceptional content.
About a decade ago, when South Africa’s advertising industry was hauled before Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Communication to explain its racist tendencies, a somewhat rattled advertising agency suit was desperately trying to defend the continued use of differentiating target markets by racial segmentation.
In spite of the fact that the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF) had decided some five years earlier to abandon their infamous WCI/Blacks formula, there were some marketers who insisted that our media provide them with audience figures broken down into whites, coloured and Indians in one group and blacks in the other.
When the suit had done with blathering on about why racial segmentation was so all-fired important, an ANC member of the portfolio committee asked a question of the ad industry people present.
The well-spoken South African Indian from Gauteng was dressed pretty much like any typical Indian trader one might meet in the Oriental Plaza or Durban store.
He asked very simply if the advertising people present would be kind enough to apply their WCI/Blacks model to him personally in terms of his home language and media consumption.
The gaggle of advertising people all seemed to agree that as he spoke English so well, it was probably his home language, but given the way he dressed he would probably still use an Indian dialect at home and would read the special Indian edition of The Sunday Times and most certainly listen to sitar music on Radio Lotus.
He then proceeded to inform them that his home language was Afrikaans and that he mostly read Rapport and Beeld and that his favourite radio station was Radio Sonder Grense. His preferred music was boeremusiek.
I had to laugh. It reminded me a similar conversation I had with Zwelakhe Sisulu when he was CEO of the SABC and he admitted to me that his favourite TV programme was not ‘Generations’ or suchlike, but rather ‘Orkney Snork Nie’.
I do not believe that at the time, RSG, Beeld or Rapport realised that they had a small but influential enclave of Afrikaans-speaking Indian tiekiedraai enthusiasts living on the East Rand.
So, given these anomalies and the fact that in my opinion media research has, by its very nature, a large margin of error, can one really believe that the sustainability of the Afrikaans newspaper lies in a solid diet of crime, crime and more crime?
The problem with all newspapers is that it is virtually impossible to accurately determine what readers actually want.
The reason for this is simple. It is because most newspaper readers don’t know what it is they want. It is a bit like asking motorists what cars they would like to drive in the future or fashionistas what designs they would like to wear in five years’ time.
They don’t know. How can they? Which is why the motor and fashion industries, along with mobile phones, computers and a host of other consumer products don’t rely on asking their customers what they want but rather just crack on and design something that their target markets haven’t even imagined.
Steve Jobs of Apple proved this point time and time again.
I believe newspapers are pretty much the same. Particularly Afrikaans newspapers.
It is suicidal for Afrikaans newspapers to assume that their readership is made up of white Afrikaans conservatives who are obsessed with crime and, by inference, the inability of a black government to control it.
Great newspapers become great because of visionary editors and CEOs in precisely the same way that visionary people like Steve Jobs and Richard Branson create great products and brands.
I believe Afrikaans newspaper editors are not unlike any other of their counterparts in South Africa in clinging to outdated paradigms that,
immovable as they might seem, need to be shifted in spite of the challenges, and the courage and stamina it will inevitably take.
I do not believe in the death of newspapers. Only in the death of newspapers that cling to the past. Editors need to start understanding the principles of marketing, something that the print media still hasn’t even vaguely grasped.
After all, isn’t it time for change? For heaven’s sake, the only changes to newspapers in
100 years has been the addition of colour and litho printing. Hardly progress.
Afrikaans newspapers have a tough job; of that there is no doubt. They’re timid about moving too far from the crime recipe and also of accepting the fact that the majority of Afrikaans-speaking South Africans are not white.
I doubt very much whether research is going to help them survive. What they will need is visionary confidence and the ability to not only provide readers with quality content, but also at the same time to ensure that their product attracts advertising and sponsorship revenue.
I believe that the sustainability of newspapers is one of the most exciting marketing challenges around today.
The great pity is that because of its profitable and cushy past, the print industry has precious few qualified marketers.
This story was first published in a special edition of The Media magazine, in June 2012, that focused on Afrikaans media.