Weekly newspaper editors speak to Liesl Venter about how they are staying on top of their game to keep their publications afloat.
You might not have heard. Newspapers are dying. And the internet is the killer.
In fact, it might just be over for paper altogether. Not to mention the trusty old pen. In the United States, websites such as newspaperdeathwatch.com keep a close eye on newspapers closing their doors. Undeniably, there are many.
Yet print newspaper circulation increased around the world by 2% in 2013 compared to 2012, according to the World Press Trends survey. At least 2.5 billion people around the world still read newspapers in print compared to the 800 million on digital platforms.
It’s still not that hard to find evidence of newspaper doom though. Almost everyone has a story to tell of how and why newspapers have no future.
“Circulation declines are not a new phenomenon,” says Waldimar Pelser, editor of the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport. “And they were definitely not accelerated to the extent that people think by the arrival of the internet. Reader behaviour has been changing for a long time.”
It’s a sentiment many in the industry share. Like City University London professor George Brock, who wrote in a blog that the picture of newspaper deterioration is one-dimensional, incomplete and out of date, and that journalism, if one knows where to look, is flourishing.
It does beg the question as to whether this is applicable in the South African weekly newspaper landscape.
“Are we in survival mode? I think not, but the platform is burning and we have to think far more fundamentally about what we do and how we do it,” says Pelser.
Weeklies remain a ‘lean-back’ experience – geared toward leisure and enjoyment, says City Press editor Ferial Haffajee. “In South Africa, weeklies continue to break news with strong investigative components and thus their relevance is still high,” says Haffajee. “There is no longer, in my mind at least, any distinction between print and online. We are all minute-by-minute, hourly, daily, weekly platforms now. Revenue models for online and print are a work in hard, hard progress.”
For Pelser, weeklies have to grab the advantage of time. “People naturally slow down over a weekend and so the content of the Sunday newspaper must be geared towards this. Fast, online, breaking news – be it for free or on an online platform or via Twitter – is not what the leisurely Sunday reader is after.”
He sees his newspaper as offering something for everyone. “No one reads the entire newspaper from back to front and if they do there are very few. Thus every section that we produce has to speak to a different set of readers and grab their attention and give them what they want. We have to provide people with captivating, well-written journalism that adds value to their lives, whether they are buying the paper for one section only or the whole thing.”
According to Professor Anton Harber, who heads up the University of the Witwatersrand’s journalism programme, all newspapers are in a transition mode.
“They are trying to move audiences on to new platforms and finding new forms of revenue. Weeklies are better placed than dailies, which can’t match the speed and range of social media when it comes to breaking news. Weeklies have always had something more to offer than the daily run of news and therein lies the secret to their survival.”
Abdul Milazi, Sunday World editor, says the survival of mainstream weekly media is possible but it requires the industry to accept that it is not a print company. “We are content providers and any platform can be used for that. I can’t over-emphasise unique content enough,” he says. “Weekend papers need to be less constipated and entertain readers while informing them. They need to be relevant and not prescriptive.”
The market for print has been rough. Dailies and weeklies have both been in the firing line.
“Survival means giving readers what they want,” says Angela Quintal, Mail & Guardian editor. “We need to fill the niche that exists and this is essentially different to dailies and monthlies. We need to express that in our content. Innovation is key. Business processes need to be reviewed constantly, products tweaked to deliver value and, yes, as an editor, I’m prepared to say we need to ensure that our advertisers get the value they expect from campaigns but not by prostitituting ourselves.”
Enter native advertising. “The old methods are waning and, like most editors, I am engaged in discussions about native advertising and branded content,” says Haffajee admitting that both have equal weights of potential and pitfall.
Chris Roper, editor in chief of the Mail & Guardian, says the potential for news organisations to get branded content wrong is huge, and so one should be very cautious about how it is used.
Milazi agrees, saying the line between advertising and editorial needs to be maintained, otherwise newspapers will become nothing but glorified flyers.
Weekly newspapers face big challenges, says Harber. “Competing for audience and attention against powerful global brands and ubiquitious social media, and finding new ways of generating revenue as advertising fragments and changes is not easy.”
Is this achievable? “Yes,” he says. “On condition that they carry content so powerful that you have to read it. The future lies with those who are bold, innovative, flexible and prepared to take risks and invest.”
Says Quintal, “We have to diversify and ensure that we are not hostage to the past and that we position ourselves as continental media players that go beyond the traditional legacy media.”
Pelser echoes this when he says that the production value of the publication has to be higher and the content standard along with it.
“We have to understand that we sell a multifaceted product. We can’t be dogmatic about what it does – we need to understand its role: that it entertains, nourishes, informs and then some.”
For Haffajee, weeklies still have to offer news but also be a guide to life and lifestyle for their readers. “Absolute originality is important because rehashing is a fool’s game.”
It is the golden age of investigative journalism, says Harber quoting Columbia University’s Anya Schiffrin. “Globally, weeklies are finding that in the search for unique and groundbreaking content, they can make use of the powerful new internet-based tools of investigative journalism,” he explains. “Sadly, in South Africa some are surviving just by cutting back on staff and resources. There is no future unless you are investing in the future directions of news.”
This post was first published in the November 2014 issue of The Media magazine.
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