The print media landscape in South Africa may have seen better days, but it is far from obsolete, writes Brian Hayward.
A recent report by media website Grubstreet put the South African media landscape in perspective when it published circulation figures for the country’s leading titles spanning the past decade, showing most titles shedding between 25% and 50% of their circulation since 2004.
Yet ask any PR practitioner or media commentator and they will attest to the fact that it is the printed media in South Africa – rather than social or online media – which still holds the moral high ground. Forget an Arab Spring-inspired revolution driven by social media. In South Africa you would have a better chance of spurring the public – and government – to action through traditional print-driven investigations.
Think of the exposés featured in titles such as Sunday Times, City Press or Mail Guardian which have not only informed the public of gross injustices, they have seen top bureaucrats and businessmen removed from their posts.
For the print media, it has been a tumultuous time trying to balance between engaging an increasingly online audience while maintaining a drive and relevance for their core printed product.
A case study
One of a handful of titles in the country to have stemmed a steady drop in circulation is the Eastern Cape’s The Herald (formerly the EP Herald). Editor in chief Heather Robertson was dispatched to the landmark title – proudly punted as SA’s oldest newspaper – in 2010, amid a fast-shrinking readership and circulation in freefall.
“Before I arrived The Herald was putting all its content online – for free! It was like killing the golden goose because no amount of online advertising could sustain the drop in print sales,” recalls Robertson, who implemented a turnaround strategy which five years later is starting to yield results.
The heydays of print where The Herald had the monopoly on news in the region are gone, she says. More than a decade ago the title boasted a daily circulation of over 35 000 copies – a trend which before her arrival had reversed so dramatically that sales dipped below the crucial 20 000 mark. Robertson has since managed the unthinkable, increasing circulation to over 21 000 while most other print titles slump dramatically.
“I didn’t manage it alone,” she says. “We have to acknowledge the journalists and of course marketing and circulation departments who also helped.
“For me it is returning to our roots and doing what we do best – telling hyper-local stories. That’s something no other major print or online title can do better,” says Robertson.
The paper has also managed to synergise with social media platforms, which have in the past have been seen as a threat to traditional media platforms. According to The Herald social media editor Dorette de Swardt, the newspaper’s website now only carries teasers containing breaking news, but directing visitors keen to read more to purchase the online or print edition.
The paper has also immersed itself in social media, boasting over 80 000 Facebook followers and 850 and climbing on Instagram. The synergy across the platforms is not only great for brand awareness, but it has seen visits to the Herald Live website soar from about 37 000 unique monthly visits in late 2013 to 140 000 currently, says De Swardt.
“We are working towards synergising more closely between our print and online platforms,” De Swardt continues. “I want to post stories which sometime don’t make it into the print edition because of space constraints or which have been bumped off the diary because of breaking news.
For Robertson, all this means “print is not dead”.
“Our readership consists of 14% of Nelson Mandela Bay youths between the ages of 15 and 24. From the ages of 25 to 34, and from 35 to 50-plus, it’s 20%, with the readership demographic representing that of the country,” she says.
Here to stay
And indeed, while there might be attrition across the traditional print media spectrum in the country, there is still demand for good journalism. It is a point which those singing the praises of social media would be wise to note, as it appears print media will remain a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future – in one form or another.
Brian Hayward of Brian Anthony Communications is a media consultant in the Eastern Cape.
IMAGE: Editor of The Herald, Heather Robertson, handing over bags of clothes and blankets to CEO of Community Chest in Port Elizabeth Beulah Lumkana after the newspaper ran a donation drive to help the poor and needy.