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Newspapers play a vital role in the daily life of millions

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“Any fool can see what’s wrong, but can you see what’s right?” The words of Winston Churchill would be appropriate in light of the recent spate of bad press that newspapers have received. When taking a view on the newspapers, one can’t simply look at the biggest titles and draw conclusions about the industry as a whole. One has to look at the broader picture in order to obtain a balanced perspective. And according to the ABC figures, collective newspaper circulation is certainly not in decline.

While it is true that circulation figures of the top nine weekly titles have declined, this must be seen in the context of the total newspaper landscape and not in isolation. Let’s consider how many more titles have been introduced and what effect this has had on readership. Daily Sun, Die Son, The Times and The New Age (not a member of the ABC) have all had an influence on the old stalwarts, but they have grown the market too. So it is not a case of fewer readers but, rather, more readers reading other titles.

It may come as something of a surprise to many that, since 2002, the collective ABC circulation figures of dailies in South Africa have risen from 1 218 650 to 1 652 706. This is an increase of about 36%. The collective ABC circulation of audited weekly newspapers has also seen an increase from 2 482 234 to 2 736 068 [+10%].

Overall, average issue newspaper readership has in fact increased. According to AMPS, between 2006 and 2011, dailies have enjoyed a growth of 17.5% in readership, having grown from a penetration of 42% to 49% in these six years.

The new titles have had the effect of fragmenting the newspaper readers. This has resulted in two very important consequences for newspapers since 2002: Firstly, it has shifted readers away from some of the better-known titles, which is one of the reasons for the decline in circulation. Secondly, it has attracted new audiences, thereby increasing the overall readership of newspapers.

Of course, reduced circulation figures have an impact on revenue, which is why the advertising rates have increased in recent years. Operating costs have to be maintained in order for the publications to remain viable. What it does do, however, is give the advertiser an opportunity to target specific audiences. This means that the advertiser wanting to target a specific audience is no longer bound by the more expensive option of a high circulation newspaper, which comes with a premium for the additional reach that they may not need.

The growth has come mostly from the black market, with a rise in average issue readership of 10.8% between 2006 and 2011 (AMPS).

One cannot deny the challenges facing newspapers today with the numerous platforms available to our audiences, but that just places even more importance on the quality of journalism and the reader experience. In a country like South Africa where digital technology is not as readily available to millions, and commuter travel takes up a lot of personal time, our newspapers play a vital role in millions of people’s lives every day.

The next few years will reveal fascinating new developments as newspapers, motivated by necessity, will have to reinvent themselves to survive the digital future. The South African newspapers, however, are a little more sheltered from the digital onslaught, as this technology is yet to be embraced to the extent that it is overseas. In the meantime, newspapers will continue to enjoy the relationship they have with their readers, and advertisers will continue to reach their target audiences through print. n

Mark Herman is Media24’s general manager for Son and Die Burger

This story was first published in the November 2012 issue of The Media magazine.