Anton Harber

The writing's on the wall

2007-01-26 12:33

Anton Harber

It promises to be an interesting year for newspapers, at home and abroad.

Internationally, we have some countries where the talk is of the looming death of newspapers as we know them (as large chunks of paper delivered manually to homes). This talk has been going on for years, so one has to treat it with caution, but one cannot deny that in countries like the US, newspaper audiences are getting smaller and older, and young people are migrating en masse to online information sources.

The Economist last year ran a front-page obituary for the industry and newspaper stocks are down 20 percent in the last year as a result.

But, globally, there are more newspapers than there were a few years ago. This is partly because there are some developing countries - like South Africa - where the market is still growing, and partly because papers are becoming more niched; more titles are serving smaller, more select audiences.

The total number of paid-for newspapers grew by 1 179 around the world between 2001 and 2005, according to the World Association of Newspapers, and the number of free dailies grew by 109 titles. In 2005, the total number of paid-for daily newspaper titles worldwide jumped over the 10,000 mark for the first time in history, fuelled by a steady 13 percent growth since 2001.

But the biggest growth has been in the circulation of free dailies, which, worldwide, more than doubled from 2001 to 2005, from 12 million copies to 28 million.

What this points to is not so much that newspapers will disappear, but that they will change radically. The growth is in free-sheets and online newspapers, or rather the online version of traditional forest-devouring papers. The papers in trouble are those that serve broad, mass markets.

At home, there are a number of trends to watch out for.

Things are changing

Daily editors are nervously watching what is happening in the Sunday Times newsroom, where they are cooking up a revolutionary new paper. As I have written before, it is not the product they are plotting to launch which is so new - a daily version of the Sunday Time's successful mix of the light and the serious - but how they plan to take it to market. They are hoping to deliver it free every day to all subscribers of the Sunday Times.

The idea is a brilliant home-grown version of the international trend to free-sheets. This way they achieve three things at once: they boost Sunday Times subscriptions, which is massively lucrative for them; they launch a paper which immediately reaches 80 000 of the wealthier homes of Gauteng, and is therefore almost an instant success; and they launch a powerful and credible challenge to all the other dailies of the region.

Editors of Business Day, the Citizen and The Star should be nervous, very nervous. They would all stand to lose a lot, particularly in advertising.

One also should watch out for newspapers in languages other than English or Afrikaans. The success of Isolezwe, the new isiZulu newspaper, now reaching more than 600 000 readers in just four years, points to the potential of this market and has led to a rush of research into audiences for newspapers in our other official languages.

And of course, the other big question, is just how much the Daily Sun can grow. It is already the biggest paper in the country, having overtaken the Sunday Times and sitting at about three times the sales of the nearest other daily paper.

Watch out for online or mobile classifieds. In Europe and the USA, the movement of this lucrative advertising market to the Internet and away from newspapers is killing many titles. In South Africa, papers like The Star have thrived on classifieds, and it is only a matter of time before these migrate to online or mobile technology.

If newspapers are dying, they are putting up a pretty lively deathbed show. What is more likely is that those newspaper groups which can adapt and add value, which are dynamic and flexible, will do well. And those who just plod on, or spend their time cutting costs to stay alive, will gradually die out.

Send your comments to Anton.

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