Based on ABC’s numbers and the latest AMPS figures from SAARF, weekly newspapers are struggling. But just how severe is the situation? Michael Bratt takes a look at some weekly publications to find out how they’re dealing with tough times.
Mail & Guardian saw both its Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) figures and AMPS number rise ever so slightly in the latest releases. Despite reports that the publication is struggling financially and even rumours that it could possibly be up for sale in the near future, strong content, particularly from its investigative division, seems to have steered it in the right direction.
However, Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism and Media Studies, director of the Journalism Programme at Wits University and author of the blog The Harbinger, believes differently. “Mail & Guardian has lost its way both editorially and financially and one can only hope that a shake-up can get it back on its fighting feet so that it can continue to be the torch-bearer of independent journalism,” he says.
As the founding editor of the Mail & Guardian, nobody might have as strong an opinion as Harber. He adds that while it may be perceived that weeklies are doing better than dailies as they have more of a chance to manoeuvre around the impact of immediate social media, that is simply not the case.
Alive and kicking
One of the success stories in the weekly newspapers space is Soccer Laduma, whose recent ABC numbers saw the publication’s sales remain steady year-on-year. The soccer-focused newspaper does not have a subscription base and no bulk deals are done to aid its distribution. Therefore, based on this fact, Soccer Laduma is the number one single copy sales newspaper in South Africa, and the gap between it and its competitors is widening.
Clint Roper, head of editorial for Soccer Laduma, explains how the publication is maintaining a constant sales base. “We are trying to create a network of content platforms that work well on their own but that work so much better if consumed together.” By merging its newspaper stories with value-added content on its website and social media pages, and with highlights people can watch on SLTV, Soccer Laduma is creating a total package.
Experts in their field
Another interesting case study is that of the City Press. While its latest ABC numbers showed a drop of just under 6.5% from the previous period, the paper’s executive editor Dumisane Lubisi is extremely confident in the strategy that the publication is utilising. “The Sunday newspaper space is very competitive, even with publications and other forms of media that are not in direct competition with each other. Due to this situation, the paper has had to adopt the strategy of providing readers with content that they would not find anywhere else but in City Press,” he explains.
This process has involved bringing on board several well-known columnists, including Mondli Makhanya (previously the editor of the Sunday Times) as well as introducing a lifestyle section which Lubisi says caters for ordinary South Africans. By implementing this plan, City Press has positioned itself as the go-to paper for politics. Readers don’t get the news, which may be old hat, courtesy of online sources, but rather an analysis and commentary on the news or an explanation of how to interpret the news with the help of experts.
“The unique selling point has to remain rooted in the expertise and deep knowledge of our people. Never content creation for the sake of it, but rather content that takes the debate forward, that orders information in a way that becomes personal for the reader,” Lubisi explains.
The Sunday Times saw a 6.5% drop in its latest ABC circulation number when compared with the previous period. The picture seems even worse when compared to the same period last year – the Sunday paper recorded a 9% decrease. The Sunday Times made headlines recently after a check audit from the ABC revealed that it had incorrectly classified 12,000 copies of the paper. As such, it will have to revise its total circulation number downward even further.
Tough times in KZN
Looking to Kwa-Zulu Natal media, the weekly publication Ilanga has been losing ground to its steadfast rival Isolezwe. The latest ABC number shows Ilanga’s readership dropping by just under 12%. This, despite the fact that the paper is shifting its strategy to try and appeal to a younger reader.
Thobile Nxumalo, newly appointed editor in chief of Ilanga newspapers, says, “The trend is that isiZulu papers find the ground fertile in KZN while the English publications like The Daily News, Mercury, Daily Sun are struggling with sales growth.”
Just like Soccer Laduma, Ilanga is also embracing the integration of online content to complement its print offering. This certainly seems to be what weekly newspapers need to do in order to remain competitive in this age of instant access to information.
The way forward
The experts believe that there are strategies that might assist in propelling weekly newspapers forward. Roper admits that weekly newspapers need to change their model as they can no longer compete with instant media, social media, TV and radio for simply reporting news. “The focus has to be on storytelling. We have to become better storytellers to be able to demand a newspaper audience’s attention,” he says.
Harber also believes that the major problem weeklies face is making their content relevant. “One would expect weekly newspapers to be doing better than the dailies, as they should be better equipped to compete with social media. But few of them are offering enough unique, high-quality content to achieve this, so most seem to be in decline.” Harber does admit that there are some exceptions, “One or two of them are trying to catch the changing mood of the country and breaking with the homogeneity of most of our media.”
Harber maintains that getting back to the heart of what Mail & Guardian was founded upon – great investigative journalism – is the solution, However, he theorises that weeklies need to expand the range of investigative topics that they cover as it seems they are stuck in a rut of covering a small range of topics.
Lubisi believes that the economic situation has been the main challenge for weeklies, not only as a result of a decrease in real spending power by readers affecting circulation, but also the challenges in the pursuit of advertising revenue.
City Press has done its best to mitigate these challenges by developing editorial partnerships with advertisers. For example, where the paper crafts a project that ties in with the advertisers outreach to readers or their clients. “These projects are editorially curated and speak to issues that our readers want more information about. The reader feedback on these projects has been enormously good,” Lubisi says.
Weekly newspapers definitely seem to have hit a rough patch. They desperately need to innovate, build their content using different platforms and find that special something that differentiates them from their competitors. In general, it’s a tough world for print currently, but being forced to reinvent and move with the times to remain relevant is not necessarily a negative. No doubt, where there’s a will, the weeklies will prevail!
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