Worldwide, the biggest challenge for newspapers is to remain relevant in today’s volatile media environment without facing bankruptcy. Revenues in the newspaper industry in particular have dropped precipitously worldwide, with print media in general unable to attract nearly the same large readership and advertising presence as was the norm in the 20th century.
In the USA, research is showing a definite split in reading habits. Consumption of digital media is growing, with mobile consumption showing the most rapid growth. Perhaps surprisingly, in the print-only sector, readership is holding its own. As much as 54% of local newspapers’ audiences still only read the news in print. Much of this, however, is likely owed to the continued presence of older readers with an established preference for print media. Newspapers the world over have largely struggled to reach younger, tech-savvy audiences, which poses a challenge for the industry in the long term.
The key headache for newspapers has been the difficulty in translating online readership into advertising revenue. Even with similar or greater numbers of online readers, few outlets have been able to generate the same income online, as was the norm in print. The result globally has been staffing cuts and other general media infrastructure cutbacks, with news bureaus often the first to be closed.
The conventional wisdom has it that global media trends take time, even years, to manifest in South Africa. There is evidence that South Africa may even be bucking some of the international trends. Newspaper circulation actually increased by 20 000 copies in the first quarter of 2014 compared with the previous quarter. But daily newspaper circulation has shown an annual decline of 4.5% since 2010. Even so, it is encouraging to note that the first quarter of 2014 remained static compared with the last quarter of 2013. While both Afrikaans and English dailies showed negative growth, vernacular titles – a historically neglected market segment, which therefore offers the greatest opportunity for development – grew by 3.5%.
Be it in print, or online, content is king. To justify this maxim, one has to add how important it is that an editor and his or her team know and understand their target market in order to offer their readers exactly what they want. A perfect example is The Daily Dispatch in East London, which grew its circulation by 4.57% in Q1 2014 against the same quarter the previous year. In the Eastern Cape, readers look for political news and insight into politics. In this respect, this title is living up to the expectations of its readers and is reaping the rewards. It may thus be wise to add that unique content, which readers cannot easily find elsewhere, may be key to building the kinds of audiences that attracts advertisers in significant numbers.
Under constant pressure to maintain or grow circulation, newspapers will always explore new opportunities in order to attract new audiences, but this needs to be done carefully. Audiences will never be static, because of constant changes in their socioeconomic status as well as rapid changes and advances in technology. But the challenge is to move with one’s existing community while adding new members to that community without alienating the bulk of one’s core community.
Newspapers, particularly dailies, are still battling with how to balance the needs of their existing print audience with the shifting demands of a growing digital audience asking for real-time news. We need to understand how people consume content in this new, multiplatform world. Print and digital should work in harmony so that people can wake up in the morning with a hunger for their newspaper, knowing that it speaks directly to and for them, available on the platform of their choice.
They should not be disappointed at any stage. The challenge for the editor is to break stories first, regardless of the platform, and to keep and win audiences by superb storytelling, optimising the media quartet. Print offers the opportunity to provide greater insight, can be more illustrative, is a longer and more polished read and the tablet is perfect for a lean-back, visually appealing read. Mobile and the website can be used to keep readers updated any time of the day and on a regular basis.
Nevertheless, finding this balance remains a huge, living media experiment, which no one has yet found the definitive answers to. Whoever does do so is likely to gain a strong and enduring comparative advantage over their peers.
Eureka Zandberg (@ezandberg) is publisher of The Citizen
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