Some high-profile businessmen have put their money into daily newspapers because they see a clear future for them. Warren Buffet and Dr Iqbal Survé have something in common. Besides money, that is. They seem to know something about daily newspapers that no one else does.
Many naysayers refer to it as an industry in crisis, some even going so far as to put a date to their forecasts, saying daily newspapers won’t be around after 2040. But Buffet and Survé have taken a completely different stance, not only saying that newspapers have a future, but also investing heavily in the industry. Buffet, once one of newspapers’ biggest doomsday prophets, has changed his tune completely, and in the past year has bought 63 American newspaper titles, including 28 dailies.
Survé is a fellow optimist. As the new owner of Independent Newspapers, one of South Africa’s biggest newspaper groups, he has been quoted extensively recently as saying he does not foresee the demise of the newspaper any time soon. And they may well be right.
According to Paula Fray, newspaperperson turned analyst and media trainer, a newspaper is much more than the medium in which it is published. “What newspapers sell is much more than paper: it’s the curation of content and a distinct voice,” she says. “Too often newspaper executives think we’re trying to ensure the future of print when what we are really looking for is a model to sell the news. News consumption patterns have changed and will continue to change.”
And it is only when newspaper executives do not recognise this that the industry will really be in a crisis. That is, despite it having to deal with some serious challenges in the past few years. There is no denying that all is not well in the newspaper world, with circulation continuing to spiral downwards.
Comparing Audit Bureau of Circulations figures from the past six years, the downward trajectory is clearly visible: fewer newspapers are being sold every day. In 2006, The Star in Johannesburg was selling around 168 776 copies a day, compared to 102 244 in 2012. Afrikaans daily Beeld dropped from 104 932 a day in 2006 to 73 455 last year, while one of the country’s big success stories, Daily Sun, saw figures plummet from 467 681 to 322 324 over the same time period. Newspapers are holding on by their fingernails and in many cases even that description is overly optimistic.
Professor Lizette Rabe from the University of Stellenbosch agrees that newspapers are in trouble and that executives must re-evaluate their recipes. “One only has to look at the figures to know that circulation is falling and even the galloping pony press of a few years back is showing signs of trouble. I believe it is time to rethink formulae and decide which format is going to be the best,” she says. “I don’t know if the broadsheet will survive. I think its time is over and it is really a mediasaurus-format that is just unpractical.”
Fray agrees, saying breaking news is now digital. “Newspapers can’t compete with that, but they do offer the reader a more holistic, analytical view of events.” It is in this sphere that newspapers are going to have to find themselves a new space.
Brendan Boyle, former editor of the Daily Dispatch, says implementing new strategies that speak to this imperative are crucial for any newspaper if it is to survive. “For the past 40-odd years we have been doing the exact same thing in the newspaper industry and the time has come for a radical mind shift if we want to overcome the crisis we are facing,” he explains.
Tim du Plessis, who heads up the Afrikaans newspaper division within Media24, agrees, saying while revenues are generally down, there are still individual titles in the country that are turning handsome profits. “Our problem is not necessarily the onslaught of online and digital. It’s the traditional business model that is changing in line with changing patterns in society and consumer behaviour. Many big advertisers that used to spend a lot, especially in dailies, are taking their marketing money elsewhere.”
He says dwindling print circulation, a natural process that has been ongoing since 1956, makes it difficult for the industry, but not impossible. Du Plessis, like Survé and Buffet, believes that the clouds of doom and gloom that have been hanging over the newspaper industry for more than half a decade could lift, but only if the newspaper sector is able to transform itself.
“I think news of the imminent demise of newspapers has been exaggerated. We have no other option than to develop new revenue streams to sustain our journalism. It is the central dilemma for newspapers, here and all over the world: find a new sustainable business model. And it is starting to happen, but it is a slow process,” he says.
It is a model that will be different across the globe, depending on the target audience any given paper serves. Before he left the Daily Dispatch at the end of May 2013, Boyle started work with his team on their new model, which focuses on local content. “It is about knowing who our readers are and giving them the information that affects their lives directly, and that means focusing on local content. Our readership is relying less and less on us to tell them what is happening internationally or what is the big news of the day, but to produce a newspaper that has immediate relevance to their every day lives.”
Rabe says it is important that one remembers newspapers have faced challenges before and won. “It was with great trepidation that newspapers awaited the arrival of radio that would spell its end, but it survived. And they waited for the arrival of television and survived it again. Now we have the digital tsunami that they have to face head on,” she says. “If the product is right and the target market’s needs are being fulfilled, then people will buy the product, be it on paper or an iPad.”
And herein lies the future. “The term newspaper will eventually become obsolete,” says Du Plessis. “What we call a newspaper today may in future be called a paid-for news platform or a news service. Once these new entities are established as solid businesses with large and affluent readerships, they will continue to play the role printed newspapers are currently playing.”
That is: to inform and entertain, to enable the free flow of ideas and information and to play its role as an important institution of democracy in an open society. While online and social media have already significantly changed the way that newspapers do business, most modern newsrooms all over the world work to a dictum of digital first. The day of the big scoop is over as Twitter is in the process of annexing its territory.
This was seen recently in the Oscar Pistorius shooting saga, when Beeld broke the story on its Twitter feed and kept its followers updated throughout the day as events unfolded, following it up with more in-depth coverage in their paper version the next day. This, says Du Plessis, is where the strength of the printed platform will be. “They will shift their focus to background and analysis, to longer form investigations and news features.”
Boyle agrees, saying this will be closely linked to the target market. “Newspapers are making sure they know very clearly who they are speaking to and then contextualising the information that they bring. So one has to take the fact of the news and tell the reader more about it, be it through interpretation or analysis or by giving them cause and consequence.”
Developing a niche – and sometimes a niche within a niche – is what will be the determining factor for success. But, says Fray, all of this comes at a price. “I’m not sure that there is sufficient appetite for risk and the recognition that we would have to fail – probably several times – before we find a new model. There is ongoing criticism that we are trying to make small changes to a declining medium when what we should be looking for is a dramatic new model.”
Unfortunately this new model is often regarded as being a technological or business model – very few people are looking at their editorial models and asking if these meet the changing needs of their audience. “The South African media needs to be comfortable with change,” says Fray. “It’s a cliché but it is true: change is the only constant right now.”