OPINION: I for one would love to believe that if people aren’t reading your newspaper, it’s thanks to a racist campaign, rather than poor content or economics.
A few months back, audience figures came out from Amps, apparently showing that the number of readers of the Cape Times had grown from 200 000 to 234 000 in the year to June. Editor Aneez Salie thanked readers for sticking by him “during a difficult time when we experienced a racist campaign against us for daring to change ownership, leadership and ethos”.
Salie argued that because readership had grown, this campaign had “failed” — evidence that “the public will not easily be fooled, no matter the racist propaganda”.
Bravo, Mr Salie: call out those racists on their plot not to read your newspaper.
This will also be good news for Iqbal Survé, whose unlisted Sekunjalo Investment Holdings bought the Cape Times’ parent company, Independent Newspapers (now Independent Media), in 2013.
There are some curiosities, however.
For one thing, the Cape Times report stopped short of revealing that those counter-revolutionary plotters might have had a glimmer of success after all.
This is because those Amps figures showed that by December 2014 — six months before — the Cape Times readership was actually (marginally) higher, at 235 000 readers.
More worryingly, Salie’s upbeat assessment also contradicts the much darker picture painted by the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), which audits actual newspapers sold.
The audit showed that for the quarter to September, the Cape Times’ “core circulation” had fallen 9% to 28 260 newspapers a day, from a year before.
Now, this isn’t necessarily any disgrace. There are many quality publications (such as this one) which have seen a precipitous decline in circulation.
That’s just print media right now. The Mail & Guardian’s core circulation fell 19.6%, City Press fell 16%, and even the Sunday Times fell 13.3%.
In fact, of the 47 newspapers audited, only seven grew during the year — notably, the Zulu-language Isolezwe.
So how do we reconcile this contradiction? How could the Cape Times readership be growing when newspaper sales are falling?
Well, it is technically possible.
To get Amps figures, the SA Audience Research Foundation (Saarf) does market research, asking people what they read; for the ABCs, only the actual number of newspapers sold is audited.
And, when you give away a lot of newspapers to schools, place them in airports or slash the price dramatically to less than half their cover prices, you can still report more people are reading your newspapers, even if your “core circulation” is falling.
In the Cape Times’ case, of the 31 197 newspapers distributed every day by September, 9.4% were either sold for less than half the cover price, or were given away to schools and classed as PMIE (print media in education). Strip those out, and you get to the “core” sales of 28 260.
Again, this is no indication the Cape Times is necessarily doing anything wrong. But its 9.4% of “low-quality” sales is notably higher than at titles such as City Press (0.2%), Business Day (0%), or Beeld (5.7%).
As part of that, Bloomberg journalist Robert Brand asked ABC vice-president Gordon Patterson how we should interpret a case where readership rises, yet circulation drops.
First, Patterson pointed out that while the ABCs are “audited”, the Amps figures “rely on the honesty and memory of the interviewee”.
He also warned that when readership rises and circulation drops, this indicates a “tough economy and/or poor content”.
Well, that’s one way of looking at it. I for one would love to believe that if people aren’t reading your newspaper, it’s thanks to a racist campaign, rather than poor content or economics.
It’s just more comforting that way.
This article first appeared in the Financial Mail and is republished here with the permission of the author.
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