There has been so much change in the hierarchy of weekly newspapers, but has this made them any better or more popular?
It has been change, change and more change for most of South Africa’s newspapers in the past few years. New owners, new editors, new staff and new ideas all speaking to new strategies. And all of these are aimed at one thing: increasing the ever-failing circulation figures.
There is no denying that newspapers in this country are under pressure. The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures for the second quarter of 2013 (April to June) prove that, if nothing else, newspapers show yet more decline.
While the drop, admittedly, is no longer as sharp as a few years ago the worrying downward trend continues.
Weekly and weekend newspapers have especially embraced change in the light of circulation loss. The latest ABC figures point to a further decline of 3.4% in weekend newspapers compared to the first quarter of this year, while weekly newspapers have continued to show a more stable performance albeit it somewhat erratic.
Change, say those in the know, has been inevitable in this quicksand landscape, but if it is for the better still remains to be seen.
“I don’t think it can be business as usual,” says media commentator Paula Fray. “But finding innovative strategies leading to circulation needs an appetite for managed risk and the economy does tend to err on the side of caution.”
The first big change in the weekly landscape was the appointment of Ferial Haffajee at City Press some years ago, but other publications quickly followed suit and in the last two years just about every weekly newspaper title has seen significant change, largely driven by the appointment of new editors.
From Phylicia Oppelt at the Sunday Times to Chris Roper and Angela Quintal at the Mail & Guardian, editor in chief and editor respectively; to Marvin Meintjies at the Sunday World, Cecilia Russell at the Saturday Star, Moshoeshoe Monare at The Sunday Independent and Jovial Rantao at the Sunday Tribune, new faces have taken over at the helm – all with their own new ideas.
One of the more recent appointments has been Waldimar Pelser at Rapport. Described as young and energetic with just the right profile to move this publication into the future, his appointment comes as no surprise considering Media24 big boss Koos Bekker has gone on the record as saying he wants editors younger than 40 to be heading up his titles.
“New blood is always good,” says Stellenbosch University’s Professor Lizette Rabe. “One wants to really say the younger the better, because they will be more inclined to shake things up and that is good for media. We must be wary of focusing too much on the age of the editors though, because really if you are good enough, you are old enough.”
The new wave of editors is younger and more energetic and possibly more willing to effect change than their predecessors. Fray agrees they are younger “but not necessarily more diverse in terms of race and gender”.
Professor Anton Harber, director of the journalism and media studies programme at Wits University, says it is clearly a time that demands innovation and change, so the tides seem to be favouring those who are bold and flexible.
“New people and new ideas are essential, but that does not mean you can throw away experience and wisdom,” he says. “The nature of the editing job has changed. Editors used to represent experience and wisdom, but now they have to offer a constant flow of new ideas and innovation. So there is a much higher turnover rate and a much shorter shelf-life for editors.”
But are the new brooms sweeping clean and have we seen much change in the publications?
“Not really,” says Harber. “Much of the change has been in word and sentiment rather than reality. A lot of newspapers are bandying around the trendy phrases ‘digital first’ and ‘open journalism’, but one sees little of it in practice.”
There is no doubt that Haffajee has livened up City Press somewhat, that Meintjies has introduced a strong editorial focus at Sunday World, that Oppelt has cleaned house ahead of her strategy implementations and that Pelser is already showing his hand with far less rugby on the front page than what Rapport‘s readers are used to.
“The fact is these new brooms are all still having to deal with some sticky dirt,” says Harber. “Persistent old habits, overly cautious owners with short-term views, nervousness and fear of disruption, paucity of new media skills, and costs are all issues that continue to impact on the newspaper industry.”
Everyone is grappling with the difficult task of anticipating the future.
“Weekly publications with their focus on quality, depth and a more holistic view of the news are best placed to offer value for money products in an online environment where breaking news is now digital,” says Fray. “The challenge is to create a habit of newspaper buying and providing opportunities to test the product and then the incentive – mostly through unique storytelling – to consume. The challenge then is to provide a product that is unique and perceived as worth buying. And to ensure that the product is available in the most accessible format – whether it is print or tablet. Ultimately we can only judge ‘success’ by circulation and the numbers speak for themselves.”
While some of the changes introduced have been good, the experts agree that some of it needs careful thought and framing.
“We know that media companies are seeking revenue from related sources such as The New Age’s breakfasts and the M&G’s Critical Thinking Forum. However, the increase in paid content and the sometimes blurring of the lines with even reputable media in their display of such content is worrisome,” says Fray.
For Rabe, the editors of weekly publications have some big challenges to overcome, and new strategies should be a given in the ever-changing media landscape. “We have to make sure we are renewing our media if we want to see it survive. Eureka moments are now more necessary than ever before,” she says.
Like Fray, she says it has been interesting to see how some of the newspapers have been redefining the space around them while some of the appointments in the country have been more dramatic than others.
The critical question, they say, will be whether the innovation displayed at various titles will lead to profitable business models. For ultimately the proof is in the pudding: circulation. And the figures are just not playing along, with hardly any improvements of note, despite the new editors.
For Harber the weekly papers that adapt effectively to the new media environment will have a promising future especially in the light of daily papers struggling to keep up with the speed and efficiency of digital and social media.
“But the weeklies will meet a growing demand for longer-term, less immediate, thoughtful, analytical and investigative journalism,” he says.
But the small pie that is South Africa might prove tricky to the new hands in delivering just that.
According to the World Press Trends survey of the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers released in June, more than half of the world’s adults read a daily newspaper, with 2.5 billion doing so in print and 600 million in digital.
“But we know that circulation is under pressure across the globe. The trend appears to be dropping single-copy sales while subscriptions hold steady or increase. This might be linked to increasing shifts to paywalls that tie print subscriptions to premium online content access,” says Fray. “But increasing audience engagement online remains a major challenge and newspapers represent a fraction of total consumption. Often this online consumption is cannibalised by ‘newslike’ products that act primarily to entertain.”
Any attempt by any of the new editors to increase market share will undoubtedly result in pushback from competing titles.
“I do think there should be an industry initiative to increase the news reading – print and online – population and encourage multiple-title consumption patterns in order to increase the pie,” Fray says.
Only time will tell if this approach will be considered, never mind embraced.
Harber sums it up. “Make no predictions,” he says. “It is like betting on our currency. You think you know what is coming, and then something will hit you from the left-field.”