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What’s next for our old friend the newspaper?

The end has been coming for a long time. Newspaper circulations have been dwindling for years but COVID has exacerbated a shocking and sharp decline from which I doubt many will recover.

Here is a look at circulations from as far back as 1997. It’s clear that the heyday was around 2007/8 when Daily Sun and The Sunday Times were power houses and all daily and weeklies hovered at around the 4 million mark.

Cut to 2020 – many of the same papers saw drastic reductions due to COVID and with the consumer’s new found reliance on news that could be easily accessed from home, we are down to just 1.4 million circulation (some titles not submitting). Unfortunately, when consumers leave a platform, so do the advertisers and that is how the death spiral starts. The total investment in newspapers in 2007 was R6.7 billion, compared to 12 years later in 2019 at just R5.9 billion (-12%). At 4% annual inflation, this number should have been almost double at R10.8 billion if all things were equal.

I believe, however, that access is just one of the reasons for the decline. In the past, newspapers were a ritual; a cup of coffee with the daily paper would take up your early morning. The Sunday paper was an event, often shared with family. No more. People just do not have the time anymore, or they do not want to spend the time, on reading a newspaper. Now consumers seek to be in and out of an experience in mere seconds. The need for convenience and speed, coupled with the fleeting attention span of a world populated by goldfish has led to this. Digital media works well with the print platform; a 140-character tweet says all you need to know or a meme can encapsulate the predicament with sharp wit and a simple turn of phrase, but when was the last time you saw an actual article go viral?

Regrettably, we are losing something with the death of newspapers. We are losing control of the story and what we consume. The robots and the algorithms are taking over here.

Editors don’t fact check Facebook. We don’t sit with 32 pages of ink with news from around the world begging to be read. Instead, the algorithm is making the choice of what we read, reinforcing our current views and creating an echo chamber for the news and opinions we want to hear. Algorithms reward populism not truth, and creates a world where all opinions are the same as yours. The irony is that we have all the worlds data saved in one place and we cannot look past our cat videos to digest the truth. It is a dangerous path to polarisation.

So, what can newspapers do to revive themselves? Well firstly, I believe that doing the same thing again and again doesn’t work, because it isn’t working. It’s time to look at alternative distribution and cost models, give newspapers away freely at street corners, varsities and malls. Give people the product at no cost, just like the online version and get consumers reading again.

Find new customers, try distributing into different pockets and test the results.

Change what a newspaper looks like. Why is it only a tabloid or broadsheet, why not an A4, high gloss or other? It is time to reinvent what a newspaper feels like.

Understand that newspapers can no longer claim “newness,” the story has already broken and been consumed across countless platforms. Don’t rehash it, you’ve got the time so take the time to explain it, give an opinion or show how it affects the citizenry reading the article.

Let’s cross fingers that there are people in boardrooms having these conversations, people that are brave enough to push for something different and implement it in a smart and considered manner. Because the alternative to this is the death of mainstream journalism and that’s not a great place to be for any of us, or our brands.


Article by Marino Sigalas

Associate Director at The MediaShop


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