How SA's newspapers can save themselves

Gill Moodie says improving content is key, not relentless cost cutting

The latest mantra of the newspaper industry as it stares like a bunny in the headlights at its own demise is to "invest in quality" - in investigative journalism and top-notch analysis - to distinguish itself from the fast and furious, largely commoditised world of online news.

From São Paulo to Oslo - and right here in Johannesburg with the likes of the Mail & Guardian - a few papers are being rewarded with growing circulation as the rest of the lemmings are squeezed by declining advertising revenue on the one hand and falling sales on the other.

It is highly notable, for instance, that the Mail & Guardian bucked the broadsheet trend of general decline in SA in the most recent ABC circulation figures - for the second  quarter of this year - by showing a healthy increase from 45 745 sales in 2010 to 48 016 in 2011. That's an increase of 2 271 papers - about 5%!

The only other South African papers to show such handsome growth were the vernacular tabloids: the daily Isolezwe and its Sunday paper, Isolezwe ngeSonto, the twice-weekly Ilanga and its Saturday paper, Ilanga Langesonto, and  Sondag.

Putting the tabloids aside for the moment, I'd say it's really not rocket science that the Mail & Guardian is on the up. It has built a reputation over many years for quality journalism and hard-hitting investigations - with the investigations unit now hived off in a separate not-for-profit unit   - and especially on quality people led from the front by the Twitter-savvy editor Nic Dawes.

The paper tells big, important stories nobody else gets. And you can trust the M&G to do its homework and get the facts right.

The smartest thing about the M&G is that its high cover price (for South Africa) of R23.50 means it's less reliant on advertising revenue than most newspapers.

In a different genre, Business Day does much the same thing - quality business and news journalism from some of the country's most senior journalists and a respected editor, Peter Bruce. Its R11.50 cover price is more than double that of other daily papers and, although Business Day, did not grow circulation in the last ABCs, it held steady (from 36 116 a year ago to 36 087) in a way that would make many other paper very envious. 

I was delighted to discover in the latest edition of Tyler Brûlé's Monocle magazine tales of papers such as Dagens Naeringsliv, Norway's leading financial daily, and the Brazilian daily, Folha de S. Paulo, that have seen a steady rise in circulation after investing in editorial quality and improving content.

And here's the rub: the winning ingredient doesn't necessarily seem to be investing in the long-form journalism that wins the big awards but in able, creative people who know what they are doing. Tabloids such as Sondag or Isolezwe may not be highbrow reads but the editorial staff clearly know their potatoes.

In the South African media market, the thing that worries me is that the newspaper industry - even though some are moving quite boldly into digital - seem to concentrate more on how to contain or cut back costs rather than on how to grow their markets. The Independent Newspaper group with its stingy Irish owners is the biggest culprit here and I wouldn't be at all surprised if in the next five years the company shuts down papers such as the Cape Argus and the Daily News - its afternoon papers in Cape Town and Durban.

The reliance on cost-cutting to maintain profit margins springs from a deep-seated timidity in our newspaper industry. Aside from aggressive moments from Media24 (think of City Press going after the Sunday Times's market under current editor Ferial Haffajee or  the forthcoming launch of an English Sunday tabloid, Scoop!), South African newspapers are tending to looking for growth outside their core markets or are surrendering their USP and trying to reposition themselves in the face of a new competitor. The Sowetan going upmarket in the face of stiff competition from the Daily Sun in an example of the latter while The Witness' recent moves to find readers in the rest of KwaZulu-Natal is an example of the former as The Mercury pushes into its core Maritzburg market.

South African papers are too quick to give up ground when they should stand and fight - and the best way to fight and win is to invest in your content.

Sure, it's good to go after new markets and to reconsider one's USP but, for heaven's sake, our papers need to show some balls and protect their turf first. 

And this is just what the M&G has done - it has never deviated from its USP of being the thinking person's weekly paper that serves up courageous investigations. It has stuck to its guns and hung onto topnotch journalists such as Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer - and the investment is being rewarded.

"We have improved our reach by doing distribution a bit better," Dawes told Politicsweb, "but what we're seeing is a very sustained year-on-year growth and I think that's because we're putting the newspaper in front of more people and they're continuing to buy the paper because they're finding relevant news in it. The view of M&G management is that you don't succeed in a tough newspaper market by giving people less journalism; you succeed by giving them more."

There is no doubt - as digital gathers pace - that there will be fewer newspapers throughout  the world, that circulation and advertising will continue to fall for many - but, as the digitally savvy such as the M&G and Business Day migrate to platforms such as Kindle and tablet, it will be their continued investment in  content  - and new ways to tell stories on the new platforms - that will keep them there and even growing.

As for the South African tabloids, I think they are putting on sales because they are connected to their communities in a way that South African newspapers have never been.

The Daily Sun, for instance, has a relatively small staff of reporters but it is so embedded in its readers' lives that the vast majority of their stories come from reader tip-offs - user-generated content.

The fact that the Daily Sun has been consistently losing circulation over the past couple of years is a tad mysterious - at 381 127 in the second quarter of this year from 433 224  a year ago -  and it's puzzling to its publishers too.

The paper is still doing everything right in terms of content. Unless its growing mobisite launched a year ago - backed by an increasingly popular Facebook page (more than 18 000 fans) and Twitter account (1 500 followers) - is stealing eyeballs away from the print edition. (The mobisite hit 1-million page impressions in its first five months.)

Being new - the Daily Sun was only launched eight years ago - so much of the tabloid industry in South Africa is mysterious and many of its readers are first-time newspaper readers. The cover prices are still low so the print editions of the likes of the Daily Sun (R2.30) and Isolezwe (R2.80) have legs yet in the lower to mid-LSM markets but it makes sense, with SA's cellphone penetration high, that mobisites are the future.

Certainly, it's not a bunny-in-the-headlights scenario for all.

Writing in the recently released "Innovations in Newspapers 2011 World Report" compiled annually for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, Miran Pavic, editor-in-chief of the Croatian Sunday paper, Nedjeljni Jutarnji, tells how a year after the paper embarked on an investment in content - on better writing, better pictures, more investigations and expanding reporting areas, on making the reporting "more aggressive, thorough and ambitious" - paid-for circulation has picked up by 22%, thereby outselling their competitors by 20 000 to 30 000 papers.  And advertising revenue is up too.

"Readers give us their money for one reason: to get quality, exclusive stories," Pavic writes. "Everything else is a distraction."

"... Our belief was in a way radical, perhaps even outdated: that better content can lead to better sales. That ONLY better content can lead to better sales. Turns out, it still can. "

For more:

‘The Economist's Mark Johnson: ‘ask for a lot from your community and you'll get a lot in return'', Editors' Weblog, September 2011

‘Der Standard editor touts the power of print,' Editors' Weblog, August 2011

‘isiZulu Sunday Times a sign of the next big publishing frontier', Bizcommunity,  Nov 2010

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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