Many industry analysts may slag off the press, but advertisers still flock to advertise in newspapers, despite the definite decline in several leading newspapers’ circulation over the last 10 years, the press still remains attractive to many advertisers. I recently saw a very interesting presentation showing that total press circulation had in fact remained fairly static over time and that all that had happened was a shift internally from one category to another.
This trend, if anything, demonstrates that the role of newspapers with readers has and will continue to change. Technology, convergence and changing consumer needs will drive this transformation.
There’s no doubt that the distribution of news via various digital platforms will ultimately erode the popularity of print. But the word is erode, not replace, and certainly not in our lifetime. News remains vital to all economically active people and newspapers need to remember this and evolve accordingly. These needs can be satisfied by other platforms such as online (Tweets, blogs, news services, social media and others) as well as radio and now even mobile television.
It is also important to point out that digital offerings still have limited access to the broader South African population. The latest AMPS figures show that only about 10% of our citizens have access to digital media and the internet. Although cellular phones are widespread, smart phones are still relatively scarce and internet access is prohibitively expensive.
While newspapers have traditionally received support from advertisers across the board, we are seeing increased support from retailers who appear to be the mainstay of newspaper prosperity. The credibility of the message offered by the press (in our split first and third world economy) is very important to them. In an era of fleeting messages, clutter, questionable educational standards and personal stress, there’s a great deal to be said for the security and ’touch and feel’ characteristics offered in the press.
Because of the relevant and easily understood content, newspapers have the potential to become the voice of the people and the market. In so doing, they achieve a level of popular ownership and trust that few media can follow.
The geographic focus that newspapers (and they all have a skew) provide is another major advantage for retailers. This creates opportunity to offer different pricing structures, special deals and stock options in various regions.
Newspapers also allow opportunities beyond run of print (ROP) placements. An example of this is the inserts that can integrate with direct response initiatives. This route can lower new customer acquisition costs significantly and enhance returns on investment.
The newspaper financial model is, however, precariously balanced and largely a result of a general production focus and over-reliance on historic income streams. The imminent loss of financial advertising coupled with the likely loss of alcohol advertising income will push many titles to the edge. In the past, the legal requirement of having financial results published in newspapers created a double-edged sword. There has been a false sense of security for publishers with no real reason for them to think beyond the Utopia they’ve enjoyed in the past.
Further, publishers have significant capital involvement in their printing presses that can easily distract management’s attention and undermine or even reduce the focus on the actual quality of journalism.
A new breed and turning the page
Newspapers today need to understand the role they play in society. There are faster ways to disseminate news, so why should anyone buy a newspaper? It’s a tough question but with a simple, timeless solution: Trust, relevance, insight and a consistent point of view that supports the reader, informs and challenges popular belief. What’s tough is simply how to do it and keep doing it.
In a previous article I mentioned that journalists seem to have started embracing marketing techniques as they realise that half the story is more appealing than the full story. The short-term benefit to this type of journalism is an increase in circulation, but the downfall has been a decrease in the credibility of the medium and a breakdown in trust.
The very role and function of the newspaper has changed. In the past, newspapers were the source of information before you listened to the top-of-the-hour news on radio or later on the eight o’ clock TV news. Newspapers unpacked developments. Journalists became experts and shared insights. However, today the relationship has changed. Expert opinion and analysis is often more comprehensive on other platforms such as on TV, radio and online.
Print journalists need to interpret and write content relevant to their readers. Lifting content and stories from the wires does not build relationships. Examples of great newspaper content in my opinion includes The Tembisan and local newspapers which are doing really well because you can’t find that content anywhere else. Journalists need to find content that no one else is carrying – their articles need to be relevant to their readers and combined with the journalist’s own interpretation. Newspaper management needs to think carefully when analysing their publication’s role in society because reading and buying the press is a habit among only a small portion of South Africans. There needs to be more serious soul searching within the newspaper industry.
A starting point might be to make journalists accountable and make the ’byline’ something to be proud of. When you’re a ‘staff reporter’ your reputation is not on the line.
Gordon Patterson is the chairman of VivaKi SA and group managing director of the Starcom MediaVest Group.
This story was first published in a special Newspaper supplement published with the March issue of The Media magazine.