Mature newspaper markets have been so depressing over the last decade that it is often tempting to focus on exciting emerging countries when looking for inspiration and a way forward. But to make sense of what is going on in the newspaper market in South Africa, the lessons from the United Kingdom and United States can’t be dismissed.
US newspapers, now in the throes of transforming themselves into digital businesses, paid a heavy price for sins of the past. Publishers had allowed enormous debts to accumulate, with catastrophic consequences when recession hit. In addition, many media owners had been caught in the headlights of the digital revolution and were unsure how to react to new media challenges.
Those who hesitated were smacked by a contagion of three things that completely eroded profitability: the recession-led collapse of advertising, a sharp decline in copy sales and the flight of readers to new, free, digital products.
The legacy of this period is that those who have survived have become incredibly aggressive and innovative. High value is placed on finding new processes where digital technology can help cut costs and increase advertising appeal.
The zone we are now in, where technology and journalism intersect, is exciting, particularly for tech-savvy newspaper people. Not so for thousands of others.
Over the past decade newsrooms have been pared down drastically and reorganised, then pared down again. Traditional print journalists have made way for fewer, highly sought after, digital specialists. Recent redundancies in the UK illustrate this process is continuing: since the start of this year, over 180 editorial jobs have been cut at the Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer and Financial Times while 60 new digital jobs have been created. PaperCuts, a website that monitors US redundancies, estimated 1 850 journalists lost their jobs in 2012, including 120 at Murdoch’s online paper, The Daily.
New skills being sought for the digital age include social media experts, data journalists, journalists with video skills and those capable of producing and directing online experiences that will help build audience.
On the new frontier, the main battle is for audience. There is awareness that the newspaper industry is still vulnerable to unexpected Google-type digital competition and the common wisdom seems to be that the more loyal the audience, the more resilient your newspaper might be.
Key to building a loyal audience is, for most, an aggressive social media presence and a paywall. The paywall gives readers access to content and more, and gives the publisher invaluable consumer insight, which, if they are smart, may one day be turned to account through targeted advertising.
The most optimistic bit of news out of the US in a long while came from the influential 2013 Pew State of the News Media Report released in March.
Paywalls seem to be working. Not just at the New York Times, but also at mid-sized papers in the US where some 450 of America’s 1 380 dailies have ring-fenced their digital content.
Contributing to positive sentiment was the fact that the slide in daily newspaper copy sales appeared, at least temporarily, to have been halted. There was also a slight increase in Sunday newspaper sales.
How much of this is smoke and mirrors remains to be seen. The US has new, more relaxed rules about what constitutes a copy sale – foreign sales are now included in the tally, and there is some double-counting between digital and print ‘copies’.
The outlook for weekly papers is generally more favourable than dailies. Publishers are keen to protect their weekend offerings because they remain the cash cows. Revenue from print ads and inserts, if lost, will never be equaled by digital revenue. So there is a great deal of focus on delivering a Sunday print product quite different to the daily in terms of content and personality.
Many consulting hours are currently going into helping publishers decide whether to cut the frequency of their print newspapers to three times a week. Here too editorial differentiation is important to retain print advertising. Hence, the rise in long-form, investigative, magazine-type content. Rick Edmonds, a researcher with the Poynter Institute (top American journalism school) says the three-day-a-week pattern may make sense in future, “but not right now, especially since it appears to include deep cuts in traditional reporting and editing”.
While there is a lot of reinvention and experimentation going on, there seem to be few answers for the news media’s main dilemma: how to replace lost print advertising revenue. While digital revenues are growing, the gap between what you can charge for a print advert and a mobile advert are still continents apart.
Edmonds does not expect the erosion of print advertising revenues to reverse, ever. Faced with this reality, US papers have been looking to cut costs further and find other sources of revenue. Downtown headquarters are being sold, repurposed or hired out, in one case as a film set.
Ken Doctor, a leading media analyst, advises companies to look at staging sponsored events, conducting research and leveraging their brand as a way to increase revenue. One US paper hires out its social media team to do marketing projects for companies in its community.
Even sponsored content is back on the horizon and now part of the revenue mix of publications like the Washington Post.
The long-term outlook for print remains grim, according to media specialists at A.T. Kearney. They expect a temporary leveling off before continuing a long-term decline, caused by the growing portion of digital natives in the overall population. They expect two groups to survive eventual consolidation: the largest players and small, highly flexible and focused players.
And it’s the last group that must offer hope for South African publishers.