Contrary to popular belief, citizen journalism was not born only a few years ago, as smartphones in the hands of ordinary folk were able to capture photos and videos of events such as the London bombings and the Arab Spring. Nor did it come into its own with the advent of blogging and the like.
My first encounter with citizen journalism was 50 years ago when I read for the first time, a little country newspaper called the South Coast Herald.
Based in Port Shepstone on the KZN South Coast, where it is apparently still alive and well today, this little commercial community newspaper won the McCall Trophy for the best of its kind in South Africa, year after year after year.
Amazingly enough, in those days, the weekly South Coast Herald, which ran tie about 36 pages, had only two staff members. One was the manager and the other a sub-editor.
What made this paper so successful was the fact that it had no reporters but instead was divided into sections, each one representing a small town or resort. What it did then was ask the citizens of each of those areas to send in their community news – hatches, matches, despatches, golf club scores and school news. Which they did free of charge and with considerable gusto
It worked like a dream. A practically zero-overhead newspaper (except for printing costs which were more than covered by an average 45% advertising) and populated by what has now become known as citizen journalism.
Today, these commercial community newspapers are prospering pretty much all over South Africa. Media24 has them, Independent News and Media has them and Caxton probably leads the field in terms of maximising profit from its 120 community newspapers.
So, the first lesson the newspaper industry can learn from this is to protest strongly against media commentators, ad agencies and media buyers who keep lumping the entire newspaper industry into one completely erroneous basket.
I get really annoyed when I see headlines about the ‘newspaper industry in trouble’ or ‘the death of newspapers’.
Newspapers are not dead. Not by a long shot. What is happening, mostly among big national dailies and some weekend titles, is that their business models are outdated. And of course, the fact that so many of them decided to commit corporate suicide by stupidly giving their content away for free on their websites.
It is interesting to see that Warren Buffet, clearly one of the world’s most canny investors, has recently ploughed a bucket-load of his personal millions into newspapers.
I was also interested to see Sekunjalo’s Dr Iqbal Survé who made a successful bid recently for all the Independent News and Media SA titles, also pointed out that there was enormous opportunity for newspapers in areas where communities were crying out for media that can gives them news of their community.
The big lesson that newspapers can learn from the fact that commercial community newspapers are prospering while their big city and national cousins are struggling, is that quite clearly today’s consumer is looking for the kind if content that is niche rather than trying to be all things to all men.
So, how come then the Daily Sun is so successful while most other dailies struggling? My belief is because the Daily Sun is actually a niche newspaper when you think about it. The big clue is in its content.
Commercial community newspapers, in my opinion, fill precisely the same need among consumers as Facebook, Twitter and all manner of online messaging apps.
Today’s consumer is community-orientated, be it a community of friends, a community of business associates and contacts or a geographic community.
The psychology of community media is fascinating. I did a personal dipstick survey recently just among friends and acquaintances in Johannesburg and Cape Town simply asking them whether they read that unrequested freesheet newspaper that landed on their driveways once a week.
I was fascinated to find out that almost everyone did, but even more fascinating was the fact that many of them actually read all those advertising inserts that fall out these newspapers like the Victoria Falls if you give them a good shake.
I have long believed that for while these commercial community newspaper inserts might look like crap and never ever be considered for advertising awards, they do sell and sell well.
Somehow there seems to be a far greater brand loyalty among readers of commercial community newspapers than those of the big dailies and weekenders.
Quite how the big national and regional newspapers will be able to take these lessons and use them will require a lot of concentrated strategic thinking and perhaps more than a dash of Solomonic wisdom.
Note: I have referred to ‘commercial’ community newspapers for good reason, because these have big money behind them and effective advertising sales forces. Community newspapers that are owned and run by actual communities are more often than not conceived and launched without much thought being given to budgeting for advertising sales. In spite of the best efforts of the MDDA, this lack of marketing know-how continues to hinder hundreds of community newspapers and radio stations that could be profiting by using the business models of their commercial counterparts.
IMAGE: A lesson in production at the South Coast Herald
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk