Planning for the next generation of readers

Saturday, 23 September 1995

Plunging newspaper circulation figures are a warning of changes to come in our society...

THE SUNDAY TIMES fired the first shot two weeks ago with a headline "Citizen eclipses The Star". This prompted Gauteng Newspapers' MD Deon du Plessis to fire back that the Sunday Times had itself lost 115 000 readers while The Star continues to dominate the greater Johannesburg area market.

It's the annual "mine's bigger than your's" show. The All Media Products Survey (Amps) figures give an indication of who exactly is reading what publication, broken down by economic group, race, age, gender, and length of nostril hair. Newspapers then use these numbers to attract advertisers.

This is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Sales of English language newspapers have been dropping and are continuing to do so.

Members of the larger public are quick to offer solutions to dropping circulation figures. ("Fire your columnist" is one popular suggestion.) (We did, and he cancelled his subscription.)

Fact of the matter is that declining newspaper circulation figures are an international trend among first world countries. The first world part of our economy has followed that trend.

In some cases, this has been planned. The repositioning of The Mercury as a publication catering to the higher income group, with a higher price tag, meant that some readers would no longer be able to afford to buy that paper. Advertisers are not interested in an audience that will not buy their product. The Mercury lost a chunk of readers.

Where did they go to?

Some of them may have gone to the Citizen. Most probably fell by the wayside.

This is stupid.

Not that the Mercury strategy was bad. Newspapers have to be profitable in order to survive. What has been forgotten is the bigger picture. A literate person who is interested enough to buy a newspaper, has the potential to work himself up to being part of the Mercury's target market.

But right now, he's in the third world market, and that market is not being catered for in this province. There is nothing to entice the literate person with a low budget to maintain and enhance the literacy habit.

And when that person works his way up the economic ladder to middle-class stability, he has no incentive to return to newspapers.

We're not growing the next generation of newspaper readers. We are honing each of our products. We are concentrating on the markets that will bring in the most advertising revenue -- as we should -- but we're not providing a vehicle to carry those that are left behind.

In that regard, Gauteng is far ahead of us. The Sowetan's circulation is growing in leaps and bounds. Its editor, Dr. Aggrey Klaaste, is revered in the townships. That paper is promoting a healthy respect for the culture of literacy that will pay real financial dividends a generation from now.

The question that then needs to be asked is whether that generation will continue to read the Sowetan, or switch to The Star.

My guess is that the answer will be neither. Readers are not being provided with an upgrade path to The Star from The Sowetan. The content of most english newspapers continues to be overwhelmingly targeted at their historical whites-only audience. Onc would never guess from a glance through the Daily News that the majority of its readership is Indian.

So, some enterprising company will step in to fill the gap with an upmarket daily catering to black readers. The Sowetan itself is a likely candidate for taking on this task in Gauteng.

It doesn't have to be that way.

The english language press could act now, by making a determined effort to cater for the lower-income literate market in areas where no such coverage exists.

The upmarket publications could begin to broaden their perspective. Those editors should be able to write as many editorials and as authoritatively about soccer as they do about rugby.

There has to be a deliberate process of nation-building reflected in editorial content. The Saturday Paper has broken ground here already. It should not do so alone.

This means encouraging a culture of examination and debate that will highlight common ground among readers, instead of consigning news for particular race groups to specially demarcated two page spreads that mimic the old Extra editions in spirit if not in name.