News publishers face tough decisions as business and consumer behaviours that began during the pandemic have become trends, for better or worse.
In the late 1980s, most families where I grew up read a newspaper. Flash forward to the present, and my recent poll of 180 Gen Z students about their print use for a media module at the university where I teach found that half the class didn’t read a newspaper in print and 36% read no magazines at all. They are awash in information and don’t much care where they get it from, as long as it is free. For my students’ generation, mobile phones have eclipsed the newspaper as a symbol of modernity and platform for information, education and entertainment.
Narratiive estimates that four of every five users access South African digital content via mobile, which is expected to account for half of all online ad revenues in 2023, when digital ad spend is expected to outstrip TV and radio. Publishers have adapted to the logics of mobile use as revenues nosedive, advertisers flee to digital platforms and audience consumption and choices diverge. Research shows that most readers don’t know or care about the difference between news, opinion and propaganda. To them, it’s all content. And that’s a big part of the global problem facing news publishers.
Linking consumers to customers by monopolising their attention used to be the news publishers’ bread and butter. However, the trade-off between exchanging analogue rands for digital cents based has created trends that look set to continue as the struggle for sustainable business models remain elusive.
Good news and bad news
The good news is that advertising is bouncing back in the third year of the pandemic economy. The bad news is that this doesn’t apply to print publishers. In South Africa, the PwC Entertainment and Media Outlook 2019 to 2023 predicted 10.2% and 5.9% ad share for newspapers and magazines respectively. Legacy news publishers also won’t necessarily benefit from a boom in e-commerce and online retail.
In the US, Alphabet, Meta and Amazon account for 64% of all digital ad revenue share. In South Africa, a lack of transparency in reporting local revenues means pundits can only guesstimate their share of the digital ad market. No media organisation can individually compete with the scale, customisation and personalisation of these platforms.
The Audit Bureau of Circulation results show that daily newspaper circulation was down 45% to 455 485 copies a day from Q4 2019 to Q4 2021. The devastation in the daily market is typified by the bleeding circulation of the Daily Sun. The tabloid for the “man in blue overalls”, which in its prime sold about half-a-million copies a day, now sells just over 40 000 copies. The decline is testimony to the financial pressures facing South Africans in the lower socioeconomic measure clusters that bore the brunt of the pandemic recession as the economy shrank by more than 7% from 2019 to 2020. Total magazine circulation dropped by 55% to about 1.3-million copies over the same period.
A few newsrooms are doubling down on a quality-trust-value proposition to attract paying subscribers to premium journalism. This involves recruiting heavy-hitting A-list journalists and columnists who offer specialised insight and analysis to bolster their subscriptions, along with context and analysis in new formats like podcasts. A study by Infinite Dial South Africa showed weekly podcast listening surge by 11% up to 20% of its research sample between 2019 and 2021.
Publishers will increasingly need to diversify their revenue streams as print sales and ad share shrink. The drive to get online audiences to pay is still a herculean challenge. In April 2021, News24, South Africa’s biggest online brand with an online audience, reported that it had 31 000 subscribers paying R75 per month to access its news and magazine content. While this is nothing to be sneezed at, that figure represented only a quarter percent of the site’s 12.8-million unique browsers. However, the fear is that subscriber models entrench already deep social inequalities between information haves and have-nots, as newsrooms may respond more vigorously to groups and interests that guarantee more commercial success.
Donor or crowdfunded operations remain an option for only a few outliers like Daily Maverick, AmaBhungane, GroundUp News, Bhekisisa or New Frame. These start-ups have harnessed the benefits of being digital-first, small, agile and focused, with journalism that is often thoughtful, valuable, concentrated or deep. However, questions of sustainability and media independence are frequently raised as a problem where donor funds are the prime or exclusive revenue solution.
The power of partnerships
Legacy news publishers should take a page from the net native playbook by harnessing of the power of partnerships with civil-society organisations, tech start-ups or academics. As newsroom and capital resources shrink, there is even greater need for solidarity between media players on content, mentoring, technology, regulation and training. Examples could be a local newspaper teaming up with a campus newspaper to report on issues affecting students, or a local chamber of business funding a metro beat column or working with a civic technology NGO like OpenUp to develop newsroom and data tools.
The major collaboration that will take place this year will be in the advocacy space, as the Publisher Support Services launches a fightback against Meta and Alphabet’s dominance of the digital advertising market and use of their intellectual property at the Competition Commission’s Online Intermediation Platforms Market Inquiry. The hope is to secure mandatory payments from tech platforms to protect the production of public-interest journalism, ensure transparency on changes to platform algorithms and limit how content is included in some search indexes.
The closure of local news outlets and stratified access to quality journalism through paywalls looks to manifest “news deserts” – cities and towns where there is no serious or useful coverage of policymaking, service delivery, crime or local business. This means communities lose a precious weapon in the fight against corruption and malfeasance at a level where service delivery and accountability are most important. Numerous academic studies show that newspaper use increases electoral participation and accountability, as well as efficiency in local government.
On the bright side, trust in print media is still up despite successive years of political players attempting to undermine public confidence in the press with their misogynistic and #WhiteMonopolyCapital straw men. Fifty-four percent of respondents in the Reuters Digital News Report said they trust news in general, while only 29% trusted news shared on social media.
The press has a lot to do to rebuild trust by ensuring independence and accuracy. The pandemic has left an expanded but battered mediascape with many survivors clinging to life rafts. The political economy confronting publishers and editors alike is fraught equally with peril and possibility as individual titles and the sector at large seeks to redefine a sustainable path to a new normal.
Jude Mathurine has worked widely in journalism education and media development in South and Southern Africa for over two decades, and holds a Master of Arts in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University. He lectures journalism and new media at Nelson Mandela University, and researches the fields of new media, innovation, media development and journalism studies.
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