As I consider newspapers, I’m filled with an overwhelming feeling I am watching one of those Groundhog Day-style movies, where the actors keep repeating their actions over and over, says Gordon Patterson.
Yes, press remains under pressure – and largely for the same reasons it did five years ago. And it is not because of the advance of digital, nor is it inevitable. The decline is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy, driven by a lack of leadership and lack of belief in the power of the written word.
Circulation trends confirm the erosion of press but do not explain the factors undermining performance.
The pie chart (see featured pic and below) reveals that only 37% of press circulation is sold at more than 50% of the cover price, which means the bulk is given away. Community free sheets and their success in recent years have contributed to this fact.
Looking at daily press, we see about 70% of total circulation is sold, while the rest is deal-driven distribution to boost circulation – such as print media in education copies and third-party bulks – and these have been cut back substantially because of hard economic times. The latter is no longer financially viable.
Weekend newspapers reflect even stronger reliance on single-copy sales because subscriptions remain low.
Driving the poor performance have been the ownership turmoil in the newspaper market, almost no self-promotion of the titles, declining skills and, in my opinion, a steady decline in the trustworthiness of newspapers and on-going political interference in newsrooms.
But there is another, less obvious, factor and that is simply that many newspapers don’t know what their readers want or where the title fits into readers’ lives. Radio stations with news every half hour are faster at disseminating news. They offer credible unpacking of stories, as well as the implications of the news. Within the more affluent market sectors, there is an abundance of news services offering bite-size analysis and search functionality online.
So, it certainly sounds like newspapers have reached the slippery slope. But if that is true, how come advertisers still use them?
Well, if you look at the newspaper titles that are growing in real terms, in both single-copy sales and subscriptions, you’ll notice the news is different. It’s not the news off international feeds, it’s real news, collected and interpreted by real reporters working for real newspapers with community interaction. And there happen to be many such titles, if one takes the time to go into the published details in the ABC reports.
Newspapers that are structured for maximum efficiency, in most cases, lack the resources to be relevant to their target audience. Their product is shaved of all their ‘fat’ and, like many other business sectors following this line of self-destruction, they become bland and sink into cost-efficient mediocrity.
Fortunately, advertisers only use circulation performance to determine value (a perspective on advertising rates) and readership to determine a rough mix of titles. The acid test for most advertisers is simply return on investment. Did I see sales?
Smaller advertisers will vouch for this as they see the traffic entering their stores immediately after a campaign starts. Many large advertisers have continuous tracking of their media activity and can measure the contribution to sales of each platform and even instore and branded content activity. Simply, the advertisers who use print know that it works. It is pity, however, that publishers remain in doubt.
The decline in circulation being reported, while it is concerning, has not significantly impacted on the performance of press, from what I’ve seen. What’s been lost circulation-wise, has been of questionable value at best. Free copies distributed to schools, complimentary copies at your local petrol station or, if you work for a large corporate, the declining bundle of copies left at reception – do these copies add value to the advertiser or is the real purpose more selfish?
I feel if the daily and weekend newspaper category is to turn around, we need improved reporting of stories that matter, less political gameplaying and greater respect for the intelligence of the reader.
I started off talking about the power of the written word – whether it’s printed or supplied digitally, the values and commitment should not be different. Publishers globally have realised that digital migration to tablet-based readership was a foolish dream (perhaps driven by thoughts of cost saving) at best and that the goal today is to build loyal readers who purchase both printed and digital copies because of their different strengths, rather than ability to offer a printed copy digitally.
So has press dropped as low as it can go?
Certainly not – but the divide between the titles doing the right thing and those who are not will broaden and become more obvious.
Are people still reading newspapers?
Hell yes, but I suspect there is a growing group who have chosen not to read certain newspapers because of their content. We know content is king and this was best proved when Nelson Mandela passed away. Daily and weekly newspapers had bumper sales. “But why?” I hear you ask. Why would consumers buy newspapers when TV channels and radio were giving minute-by-minute reports? It’s a good question that, in my opinion, should be the subject of a case study by the Print and Digital Media South Africa (PDMSA). The fact is we don’t know.
I suspect people have an emotional connection to the printed word. I suspect the content was well above the normal reporting levels. I suspect the news mattered to South Africans.
Are newspapers surviving financially? When saving money becomes a 24-hour obsession, quality often suffers. And for those titles looking for more advertising income, can I suggest you look at understanding what advertisers want and start selling.
In our profession, the only route to a profitable future is doing something well today and doing it even better tomorrow.
Gordon Patterson is the business director of Omnicom Media Group. This post was first published in the May 2015 issue of The Media magazine.
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