Death of newspapers premature

15 December 2011 - 02:06 By Brendan Boyle
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Brendan Boyle
Brendan Boyle
Image: The Dispatch

Contrasting experiences in recent weeks amplified the debate in my head about the future of news in print - and led me to a happier conclusion than I had expected.

My reading time went up and my paper consumption went down when I got a Kindle, but when a kind reader delivered several recent copies of the Christian Science Monitor's weekly magazine, it was like going home.

Despite its name and faith-based ownership, the daily CSM newspaper, which closed in 2008, had a fearsome reputation for professionalism, objectivity and balance - and one of the biggest networks of foreign bureaus around the world.

That once-great newspaper, revered by foreign correspondents everywhere, has been reduced to a website and this weekly print review. But the magazine, from its use of pictures to the copy-tasting, the breadth of cover, the quality of analysis and its presentation, is a treat in this age of common-denominator publishing. The marketing pitch is limited to one commentary and clearly labelled.

It would be easy when the internet is awash with data and stories about the death of the newspaper, to believe that an editor's job today is just to manage the demise of their title down the same path into the digital archive of history.

At least 105 US newspapers closed in the first half of 2009, when the media recession was deepest. My own favourite, the Rocky Mountain News, is gone, the New York Times is battling to stay afloat and the London Evening Standard has become a free sheet.

Papers as famous as The Guardian, The Times and the upstart Independent are experimenting with formats, layouts and innovative news digests to fend off the attack from digital media - while trying to figure out a way to secure their own futures by making online publication pay.

London's pink lady, the Financial Times, has signed up more than 250000 digital subscribers - estimated by industry analysts to be pulling in more than $100-million a year. The New York Times is reported to be earning more than $60-million a year in subscriptions to the digital replica of the print edition.

Even in South Africa, online ad-spend is growing more than twice as fast as the expenditure on newspaper advertising.

So the wisdom of crowds would seem to suggest that we should give up any hope of keeping our presses rolling and hire the entire class of 2011 from the country's best computer school to put us on the internet.

Well, no actually.

Our fashions in clothing and electronics may be dictated by the US and Europe, but to presume that we must follow the US example risks a self-fulfilling prophesy. India, Brazil and, to some extent, China are better pointers for us.

OECD research shows that newspaper circulation grew in the four years to 2009 by 40% in India, by 21% in Brazil, by 10% in China and by 6% in South Africa. In the same period, sales fell by 8% in Germany, 13% in the US and 16% in Britain.

Media futurologist Ross Dawson predicts in a telling graphic on the internet when news on paper will, as he puts it, "become insignificant".

Predictably, he says the US will go first, saying newspapers in their current form will be insignificant by 2017. The UK press has until 2019, he says, Australia until 2022, France until 2029 and Japan and China until 2031.

He predicts, however, that newspapers will remain significant in South Africa's urban areas until 2037 and in rural areas until after 2040.

Spending on advertising, the essential fuel that keeps our newsrooms and presses running, is changing in South Africa, but television and print still dominate.

From March 2010 to March 2011, spending on television advertising grew by 23% to R13.4-billion while advertising in print grew by a less rosy 11.2% to R9.9-billion.

Spending on internet-based advertising grew by 26% - the largest margin - but from a low base to just R609-million.

My mathematically inclined son tells me at those rates it would take more than 20 years for the value of advertising on the internet to overtake adspend in newspapers.

PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates in its South African entertainment and media outlook 2011-2015 that the newspaper share of total advertising spending in South Africa will decline only marginally from 31% in 2010 to 30% in 2015, that television will retain its 35% share and that the internet share will treble from 2% to 6%.

So an ad-free e-reader has its place, but our South African reality is that the humble newspaper will remain with us for a generation yet, telling and analysing the stories of our society as it delivers the news and messages from the advertisers who pay the lion's share of our costs.

That is good news.

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