Size matters, especially for newspapers. In the last few months, several South African print titles have reviewed their formats, and made changes. Volksblad’s Saturday edition is now tabloid size, as is Beeld’s weekend paper. The Cape Argus, once a broadsheet, has changed back from tabloid to US broadsheet format after going ‘compact’ in 2012. The Witness has a broadsheet edition for Pietermaritzburg and the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, but has launched a tabloid for a new Durban market.
A core reason for these changes is advertising, say all the editors.
“We had to rethink our Saturday strategy. Advertising revenue was taking a knock on Saturdays,” says Beeld editor, Adriaan Basson. “At the same time our lifestyle offering was growing, gaining significant traction under readers. We realised that our readers wanted a different product on Saturdays. So we decided to completely change the focus, from primarily hard news driven to lifestyle-orientated. We kept the hard news lead, but borrowed from i and other international tabloids on how to make the paper feel lighter and more fun,” he says.
“We’ve always had the lifestyle, culture and entertainment content, but now we also display it prominently on the front. Because our advertising revenue on a Saturday wasn’t shooting through the roof, we could afford to take a risk. And it is paying off.”
Andrew Trench, editor of The Witness, is in charge of both editions and has the unenviable task of overseeing two different newspapers in two different formats being produced within the same production cycle.
“The production challenge is significant, managing copy and page flow for a different edition in a different format within the same production cycle. Fortunately, the compact format lends itself to more rapid editorial production and we have managed to successfully produce the paper with a very small team of sub-editors. The challenge is also in content focus as we have deliberately made the Durban paper more vehemently focused on Durban and the PMB paper more focused on its traditional market of PMB and Midlands,” he says.
This does, of course, make advertising quite a complex business. “It does complicate advertising but we had very little to lose in the Durban market with our existing edition there,” says Trench. “The challenge is more on national advertising whom I understand are not keen on providing material in two different formats but for now our sales team is focusing on regional and local direct advertising in the Durban paper but our immediate goal is to build our circulation in Durban to a competitive level.”
Trench says they took the risk of going compact despite the fact that the size can deter advertisers. “It’s early days but I understand from our sales team that advertiser response, as with readers, has been positive.” He says they took the risk “because of a small loading on Saturdays. And we have increased advertising revenue since we went tabloid, so it’s working for us”.
Argus editor Jermaine Craig told Grubstreet recently that the decision to go back to broadsheet, albeit the US version, which is thin as a tabloid but as long as a broadsheet, was due to the fact that the compact edition “reduced” the Argus’ advertising inventory resulting in a loss of revenue. “Editors today have to be conscious of the commercial considerations of our newspapers,” he said.
Asked by The Media Online if converting to a size unfamiliar to South African readers was a risk, Craig said it was one “well worth taking”.
“The change has ushered in a new editorial direction, focusing on our core strength of covering local metro issues that matter to Capetonians, Cape Town’s vibrant urban lifestyle offering and also a bigger focus on local sport coverage that resonates with our readers. The layout is fresh and allows for our photographers to express themselves and enhance our paper visually, so for us its early days of course, but we’re very positive about the change,” he says.
Advertiser response to the changed format has been “extremely favourable”, Craig says. “I accompanied our advertising teams to meet with many of our key advertising agencies and media buyers to explain that the change in formal is not simply a commercial decision, but one designed to enhanced the quality of our editorial offering considerably and inject some much-needed vibrancy and energy into a great Cape brand,” he says.
“We stressed that while we will continue to cater for our traditional readers, we were also positioning the paper to better resonate with the burgeoning aspirational middle-class Cape Town residents and looking to grow a younger audience. Their response has been good and for the first time in a long time our advertising teams have been making budgets and advising that clients are responding well to the increased opportunities our paper affords them.”
There has always been a perception in newspapers that tabloid size indicates a more down-market paper. “I closely tracked reader feedback on this. About 65% of readers loved the first edition,” says Basson. “Thirty percent complained, but it centred mainly around a perceived decrease in sports coverage. Rugby and cricket are holy for Beeld, so we had to immediately increase the offering, which we did. I think there is an unfortunate perception in South Africa that tabloid-size newspapers should be of a lesser quality. But I think that’s starting to change – I mean the Mail & Guardian has been a tabloid for years! Just because news stories are shorter in length, doesn’t mean they are of a lesser quality,” he says.
Trench says the first version of the Durban edition of The Witness, introduced to market late in 2013, was broadsheet but that the edition failed to gain traction.
“We went back to the drawing board and decided that we needed to hit the Durban market with a more strongly differentiated product in terms of content focus, format, pricing and design and decided that a compact format would be the way to go as it was in line with international trends towards this format and also highly distinctive compared to the incumbents in the Durban market against whom we would compete,” he says.
The decision has worked to the newspaper’s advantage. “The Durban paper is up significantly – by an order of 200% or so – although off a very low base. The PMB paper – like most dailies – is battling a stagnant market and our focus in now on rebuilding circulation there now that there is some positive movement in the Durban edition,” Trench says.
Basson says Beeld readers are “overwhelmingly positive” about the Saturday tabloid. “I still receive messages from readers, asking us to change the daily broadsheet to a tabloid too. People say it has changed their reading habits. They can now read Saturday Beeld in bed without knocking their partner in the face! I saw someone reading it on the plane the other day; it was beautiful to watch,” he says.
With a change in size comes a rejigging of content too. Basson says the main difference in Beeld is that the entertainment and lifestyle offering has been incorporated into the main body of the paper, meaning there are no extra Saturday supplements. “The Monday to Friday edition is very hard-news focused, as it should be. Hard news is Beeld’s bread and butter in the week. But on Saturdays the appetite changes slightly. People go out, play with their kids and braai with friends. They don’t have hours to spend with us, so it has to be quick and gripping. We have a fabulous lifestyle offering, including some of the country’s best chefs giving our readers their best Sunday recipes. I see this edition as your guide to the weekend, with news on top,” he says.
Trench says the Durban edition’s content pillars were rebuilt from scratch. “I would attribute our early growth to this. We rebuilt the content pillars based on a deep research into our target market and moved from there to provide a more distinctive editorial offering where campaigning, investigative reporting with a strong dollop of stories of hope and a bit more fun form the basic ingredients of our recipe. We are working on a similar recipe for PMB but more appropriate to the paper’s audience there and its traditional role,” he says.
Craig says reader response has been extremely positive, with more traditional Argus readers welcoming the change to more familiar broadsheet territory. But it is a challenge maintaining a separate identity to Independent Media’s other two Western Cape dailies, the Cape Times and the Daily Voice.
“The challenge for us is that Independent is very dominant in the Cape Town English market, with the Cape Argus, Cape Times, Daily Voice and a number of high-quality community newspapers in our stable. So the major challenge is for us to differentiate our titles to cater for our distinct audiences, another reason why the change in format was so important to offer us something innovative and stand-out in the market,” says Craig. “We’ve always focused on our strong metro coverage, quality journalism and writing and opinion and analysis and great local sport and lifestyle coverage. I know the paper and its readers well and we’ve gone back to our traditional readership base to better cater for their content needs, while we’re positive about engaging new audiences, both in print but critically also online
Major changes in newspapers are made to drive circulation upwards. Has this worked for Beeld? Basson says circulation has dropped off slightly, but that the model “works because we have increased the cover-price to R10. People are willing to pay a bit more for a quality product. That is our challenge: to keep the perception of quality (and the offering, of course) up there”.
Craig agrees. “Circulation is tough for us all and we’re looking to hold it steady while finding new growth opportunities, but encouragingly the recent figures show that our readership has grown from 303 000 to 344 000 over the last year, which we are very excited and positive about,” he says.
Trench believes the greatest commercial imperative for editors in these trying times for print “is to ensure we produce a paper that is meaningful, relevant and sharply focused on our target audience. If that is done correctly – and all else being equal – we should find success in the market from which all other commercial interests and success will flow”.
Craig says his time working on the 2010 FIFA World Cup Organising Committee and at South African Tourism has equipped him well to better understand the business side of the tough newspaper industry. “Undoubtedly, one has to be more conscious of the commercial side of things, working closely with our advertising, marketing and distribution teams, but the core part of my job remains editorial. Our ambition is to be Cape Town’s best newspaper and one of the best in the country, so my job is consumed by us breaking the big Cape stories, improving the quality of our writing and putting out a high-quality product daily. Of course the commercial considerations are important, we’re trying to safeguard as many jobs as we can in tough economic times, but they have no impact on the editorial calls that need to be made,” he says.
Trench remains optimistic about the future of the medium. “It is a myth that it is impossible to sell more print newspapers in this market. It may be tough, but it is not impossible as our early days experience with the new Durban paper has shown,” he says. “This gives me some hope for the future and I believe that as long as we have the resources to create a respectable and useful newspaper each day there is no reason to think that we cannot find growth, as challenging as it may seem when we look at the print landscape in South Africa at the moment.”
Note: Story updated with comment from Jermaine Craig.
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