Are the challenges different for editors of daily and weekly newspapers? Are they surmountable? Peta Krost Maunder asks the editors.
Newspapers are the punching bag for the industry at the moment: everyone is giving this sector their best shot. Yes, circulation figures are down but, according to the editors, if those in charge play their cards right, there is every reason for an ongoing, thriving newspaper industry.
To get the picture, The Media contacted a mix of daily and weekend newspaper editors, including Sunday Times editor Ray Hartley, The Times editor Phylicia Oppelt, The Herald editor Heather Robertson, Sowetan editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela and Sunday World editor Wally Mbhele.
“The biggest challenge remains producing high quality, exclusive content that makes us unique on a Sunday and ensuring that we have the right mix of stories to satisfy the needs of our huge readership,” says Hartley, who was also the launch editor of The Times.
His successor, Phylicia Oppelt, says her main challenges in getting the newspaper out are: “Balancing newsroom resources with the need for fresh original content that keeps our readers coming back. It starts with the front page and ends with the package.”
Heather Robertson, former news editor, managing and deputy editor of the Sunday Times, says her core challenges are: “Getting reporters to write compelling stories that are relevant to readers. There is very little budget allocated to marketing the newspaper to potential readers and advertising clients.” Robertson adds that having to cut costs and merge two newspapers into one newsroom adds to her challenges.
While the content and style on a daily and weekly differ, the main issues for editors are content, content and content. They all agree that if you deliver exceptional and unique content, people will want to read your newspaper, whether it is online, in print, daily or weekly.
While dailies are declining in circulation more rapidly than weekenders, Robertson believes that both are “competing for the reader’s attention amid the flurry of activities that are consuming their time”.
For weekly editors, Robertson believes the challenges are “to set the week’s agenda with exclusive news, to provide in-depth analysis on current affairs, a leisurely entertaining read, humour and in-depth coverage, and analysis of the major sporting codes”.
For dailies, Oppelt says, “We have to be cognisant of the fact that we can no longer rely on breaking news to draw readers. Their worlds have expanded rapidly with the growth of online media platforms and social networking sites. We have to go beyond the superficial skimming of news events and offer our readers more – in terms of taking the story further and adding a measure of analysis.”
Hartley says that dailies face direct competition with electronic media platforms and the key challenge must be to run with the news but also to turn around an original angle very quickly. Dailies need a powerful personality, playfulness and a strong visual appeal if they are to win over a new generation of newspaper readers.
Mkhabela says the challenge for dailies is to remain relevant and fresh when they hit the streets. “The strategy for many titles, including the Sowetan, has been to embrace social media and online as an integral part of our news operation,” he says.
Robertson explains that for her, circulation declines in dailies and Saturday newspapers is a tough fact to deal with and needs to be overcome with investment in marketing and thinking of new ways of making the newspaper available to readers, other than the massive reliance on retail stores.
And in pursuing those who have switched off print, The Herald has provided an e-edition and a website that provides photo galleries, videos and a comprehensive local service directory. This is something that has been done with the Sowetan and many other dailies.
Some haven’t quite got past the ‘fighting to break the news story’ mentality and they are suffering.
Hartley agrees. “Both daily and weekly newspapers must provide something original to their readers in an age where breaking news is digested by the minute on the internet and on radio. Weekly newspapers have to provide exclusive content that is in-depth and well written to meet the demands of readers who are seeking breaking news but also place a high value on opinion and analysis.”
What has to be done differently for all newspapers, according to Mkhabela, is “innovation, innovation, innovation”.
Robertson says: “Both dailies and weeklies can provide in-depth analysis, exclusive news and investigative journalism. It all depends on the quality of news editors and journalists who know how to probe beyond the press release, to spot a unique angle, to delve beneath the surface and are well connected to sources in their beat and understand our role as a watchdog of society.”
Hartley is secure in the belief that newspapers will be around for “a very long time” because not only is there an older generation that is committed to getting their news on newsprint, but there is evidence that new readers are entering the market in South Africa “where titles are meeting their expectations”.
Hartley says, “I believe the best read – and most reliable – articles on the internet are produced by newsrooms where the discipline of deadlines and the requirements of accuracy are required. But the internet is a very effective and fast medium for accessing this content.
“As the torrent of information available online, on television’s mushrooming channels and on radio grows, newspapers have the opportunity to provide something of great value – navigating through the noise,” says Hartley. “There is a growing hunger for in-depth content which is original, clever and provides insight.”
Mbhele believes that both online and social media can be turned into an opportunity rather than a threat if newsroom teams are creative enough. “Societies are not static, but dynamic. We have to be bold enough not to fear change or taking (calculated) risks,” Mbhele says.
Robertson believes online has had a negative and positive impact on newspapers because journalists often pick up stories like the death of a prominent person on Facebook and Twitter. Then they are able to speak to all parties concerned, verify the facts and create a solid story. “Our currency is trust and accuracy, not gossip, which is unreliable and the biggest shortcoming of the social media scene,” says Robertson. But she admits that online has changed the role of dailies to provide more in-depth stories with multiple voices and colour. Online may break the story, she says, but dailies need to take them much further or break unique ones.
Oppelt agrees newsrooms have to pay more attention to online platforms. “That’s the space in which young readers are most comfortable in terms of consuming media. To ignore it or make half-hearted attempts at developing those platforms is just suicidal and short-sighted,” says Oppelt.
To maintain and gain readers, Robertson says, “Both dailies and weeklies have to listen to our readers and try and be the pulse of the people we serve. Newspaper companies should invest more in research to establish changes in interests and reading behaviour of our target markets. I think investing in the training of journalists and editors as well as specialist writers in law, education, science and technology, sports, politics, consumer affairs and health, will go a long way to improve the quality of the content we provide.”
Are they right? Time will tell!
This story was first published in the November 2012 issue of The Media magazine.