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Surviving the Digital Revolution: The State of South Africa's Print Industry

26 August 2014, 08:14

South Africa's printing industry is one of the most advanced on the African continent. And although this industry is still, as Pascal Smits, the CEO of Printingdeals.org puts it, “a part of the soul of the country’s business world,” many pundits have nonetheless voiced concerns over its survival and continued relevance in this digital age.

This same question has plagued the minds of many executives of printing firms all over the world in the past few decades. But while the digital platform is gaining the edge in many developed countries, in South Africa the print medium seems to still have a firm foothold.

According to the results of a study about the contemporary perspectives on the print medium in the country's main business hubs, many South African companies still regard this medium as an essential part of their communication mix.

The Canon South Africa's Market Insight Report, which was published last month, reported that 92% of their respondents agreed professional printing is still crucial to business in the country. About 87% of the respondents also expressed optimism that the use of the printed medium is set to increase and 68% said the medium will remain just as important over the next five years. However, rather interestingly, only 20% of the respondents agreed that the role of the print medium will grow in significance over the next five years.

The findings of this study are consistent with the appraisals of many experts who say that although the print medium has survived the digital onslaught, it needs its own counter-revolution. But this may be a herculean task, considering the wide appeal of the digital platform today.

Many commentators have sounded alarm as newspaper circulation figures have dropped steadily over the past few years in South Africa. Last year, the Financial Times announced that it will cease printing its daily newspaper in the country. Although the British publication, which had operated in the country for a decade, produced only about 1,400 copies daily, the move was viewed by many as a reflection of the changing times and the increasing viability of digital over print.

Emily Gibbs, a communication executive with the Financial Times, noted that the company's decision is in response to the "increasingly multichannel media consumption habits of our readers..."

In truth to her statement, many publications in the country now have a digital platform in adjunct to their papers. But also, many online start-ups have expanded into printing hard copies of their publications as well.

Earlier in the month, the Audit Bureau of Circulations of South Africa published the circulation statistics for April-June indicating that 1,200,894 hard copies of daily newspapers were sold, compared to a meager 6,250 digital editions.

The fact is that the place of the printed document cannot be completely exchanged easily or cheaply at this stage of our technological evolution. Therefore, it seems the more pressing question should be the way to secure its place in our rapidly evolving world.

According to Mr. Smits, the key to this lies in exploiting synergies between the print and digital media. "The only way one medium is not always going to be seen as an alternative to the other is if they are combined in an innovative and more effective communication mix," he explains.

A glaring example of what Mr. Smits means may be augmented reality. Since the technology was introduced into the country a few years ago, it has steadily gained in popularity. This technology enables publishers to make their content more interactive by lacing it with a digital layer that readers can access with their smartphones.

Statistics indicate South Africa is one of the foremost nations in the world where people access the internet though mobile devices. The country has also has one of the highest percentages of app downloads.

Reports indicate that the use of augmented reality is quickly growing in South Africa. In April, Maarten Lens-FitzGerald, the co-founder of Layar, one of the new augmented reality apps making waves in the country, revealed that the app performed well in the market in 2013. According to him, "marketing agencies as well as leading magazines" have adopted augmented reality to enhance their print and engage their audiences.

"Last year South Africa's downloads represented 4% of the [Layar] total global downloads. We are excited with the campaigns we see in South Africa and look forward to see more projects using Layar," he added.

Another notable interaction between digital technology and the print media is in the field of advertising and branding. Today, supported with cutting-edge graphic design tools, companies can make their printed messages more vivid and interesting.

Mr. Smits, who runs a company that connects individuals and organizations with publishers, firmly insists that the 'best is yet to come' in terms of printing. According to him, "the world will not abandon the printed document at this crucial stage when we can create copies of unprecedented quality."

Reports indicate that about half of South Africa’s population over 15 years old are avid readers of newspapers and magazines. Also in 2013, over R6 billion was spent on advertising in print mediums, according to South African Advertising Research Foundation.

It is clear that the print medium will continue to play a vital part in our communication mix for sometime to come. Some overly optimistic pundits even believe it is set to have a greater role. But the fact remains that it is slowly being edged away.

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