People generally don’t watch television for the advertisements, but they certainly do read their community newspapers for advertising. Sharlene Sharim finds out about the power of the community freesheets in a story first published in The Media magazine.
In an age when consumers are bombarded with roughly 3 000 advertisements every day, free community newspapers have succeeded where many other media types have failed: in making advertisements desirable.
Ads24 national business manager of communities, Evan Smith, believes that in most instances the newspapers are used as ‘comparative shopping tools’. Cash-strapped consumers leisurely enjoy the ‘product and price’ provided in these papers, compared to the quick television and radio advertisements, says Smith. He adds that the great appeal for advertisers is consumers don’t only see the advertising, but act on it. “People use their community paper to ‘map’ their shopping destinations,” he says.
Gill Randall, joint MD at the Newspaper Advertising Bureau (NAB), believes freesheets fill a gap in the media landscape. “There is no other media type that can give you all of the relevant local information, a mouthpiece to talk about your community and also give you highly relevant advertising deals, all in one neat little package.”
The advertising, she points out, is relevant because all of the products are available locally. These freesheets also need advertising from both local businesses and national retailers in order to survive, she says.
Unlike other media owners who rely almost solely on national advertising, Randall says a big portion of their revenue comes from small to medium local enterprises. But, as she points out, you need advertising from both in order to make a profit. The classic model that works for them is getting roughly 60% to 70% of their advertising from local businesses while the other 30% to 40% is made up by national retailers.
Fellow NAB joint MD, John Bowles, adds: “Our papers are a hardworking medium, they generate feet traffic, get tills ringing and get the high reach.” But rather than simply going to deliver a free newspaper with news, he says they are very aware of buyer behaviour and try to adjust their papers accordingly. The NAB also recognises that people start to plan their shop, two to three days prior to the weekend and that’s when they distribute their papers.
But it’s a combination of elements that contribute to making these papers so powerful.
Chantal Erfort, editor of Independent Newspaper’s Cape community papers, notes that in an age where people don’t want to go out trawling for news, community papers not only reach readers who may not be able to afford to pay for commercial titles, but also offer them the convenience of having the news brought to them.
And those who don’t receive their papers are quick to complain, she says. In each case, the newspaper content is tailor-made for its audience.
Smith, who believes people are experiencing ‘negative news’ fatigue, says: “Community media offer information and news not easily obtained elsewhere, thereby serving high relevance content to readers.”
And as Rishaad Mahomed, managing director of tabloid media and chairman of Capro Limited points out, advertisers are discerning and often do their research before choosing the title in which they want to spend their money.
“If a paper is not popular among its readers, often that adspend goes elsewhere. Hence while profits are important we need to still present ourselves in the public’s interest and ensure that we are respected,” he says.
Although balancing profit motives with community interest and editorial integrity may be tricky, the continuing growth trends and increases in revenue are testament to these papers’ success.
“Unlike other print media, community newspapers are still on a growth trajectory,” says Bruce Sturgeon, CEO of Caxton’s community newspapers. He sees this trend continuing into the foreseeable future.
Bowles also points out that they have a very strong focus in LSM 4-7 as this is where the growth in readership is happening.
Over the past 14 years, Caxton has seen a 165% increase in verified free distribution and now have 105 free titles in their stable, according to Sturgeon. They’re also in the process of launching a network of titles aimed at the Zulu-speaking community in KwaZulu-Natal. Caxton started out in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal and this is where a large part of their focus has remained. But they have also expanded strongly into Mpumalanga, Limpopo and the Northwest.
Media24 on the other hand has far more community newspapers in the Cape than Gauteng. Smith says the reasons are more historical than intentional, as these community titles expanded in areas where the original mother organisation started.
Media24 have experienced double-digit growth in revenue. Smith says that in some areas where there are opposing titles, both newspapers are also showing growth, thus indicating that the market is still robust.
Independent Newspapers also distributes 15 titles, door-to-door, in the Cape Peninsula and surrounds. And while Vale says there is always room for growth as residential areas expand, he points out that the opportunities for new players are limited as these markets are already served by more than one media owner.
“It obviously is much more difficult to break into markets with long-established newspapers and reading habits than into areas without such a legacy,” says Sturgeon.
Mahomed whose organisation represents independent titles (some of them grassroots publications that lack the resources and skill to compete with bigger publications) agrees that turning a profit will be difficult if you’re entering the market now.
“Advertising is the lifeblood of a free newspaper. If you enter a new market where there are national clients and no competition then yes, you have a chance, but still it will take anything up to 18 months before you see profits,” he says.
But despite their success, negative perceptions surrounding the quality and credibility of content remain, with the stigma persisting that community newspapers end up as window-washers or bird-cage liners, says Smith. Nevertheless, the ABCs for January to March 2011 show that 59% of newspapers read in this period were community newspapers. Of these, 91% are freesheets.
The NAB also spends R10-million every three years on their ROOTS research which provides them with very comprehensive readership data.
“We can tell you how many people are reading the freesheets, who’s reading them, whether they are males or females, their age group and whether they have children. The data really is very, very comprehensive in terms of giving back information,” says Randall. Their ROOTS 2010 study shows that the average readership per issue of the Caxton-represented free community papers was around 64%.
But as the gap between perception and reality closes, freesheets face new challenges that range from ensuring that the distribution reaches the households, to the increasing cost of paper.
At a time when online penetration is growing and bandwidth becomes more affordable, Bowles says they have risen to the occasion by launching an online portal called Look Local, which currently hosts 29 of their community newspapers. That figure is said to increase to 52 by the end of the year.
Erfort says they too grapple with how to present their products online and how to make money from an online presence. “The challenge is to find a model that isn’t merely an online ‘dump’ of the print product, but one with added value for both readers and advertisers,” she says.
Only time will tell if freesheets can equal their success in the online sphere, but could it be that the best things in life are free, after all?
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