Picture: 123RF/Iryna Tiumentseva
Picture: 123RF/Iryna Tiumentseva

Has the daily newspaper become a luxury? Chris Botha, who runs the MediaShop agency group, thinks both newspapers and magazines are now out of reach of many consumers.

"[They] are now the ultimate luxury buy. And in times of economic strife, these will be the first to go," Botha says.

The 10-year downward spiral in newspaper circulation figures is also forcing brands to rethink their advertising placement strategy in an economic climate in which return on ad-spend investment is critical.

One marketing director tells the FM: "Newspapers and magazines are no longer a first port of call in my portfolio of brands. We have become digitally obsessed in the past three years. I’ll look at a print platform only if there is an online component built in."

This thinking is informed by the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers that show total newspaper circulation declined almost 5% in the last quarter of 2019 from the previous quarter, and just over 9% year on year.

For daily papers circulation fell almost 6% on the previous quarter, which will be of concern to print owners who normally bank on the festive season at the end of the year to bulk up advertising.

Only two dailies bucked the trend in the last quarter: The Herald in Port Elizabeth (more than 3% higher) and Business Day (up by nearly 1%). Weekend newspapers, once an advertising must- buy for big brands, remain under pressure.

The category declined almost 18% year on year.

Says one media planner: "Our weekend habits have changed. No longer do people make an appointment with a Sunday newspaper as they used to."

Botha, who counts among his clients big spenders like Shoprite Checkers and Tiger Brands, says the latest figures are not surprising because they reflect what is happening in the rest of the world. "Print circulations have been steadily declining for more than 10 years now. The speed of these declines is, however, helped along by the tough economic climate that consumers are facing."

Botha says the challenge for print media owners is that most clients now want to trade on a cost-per-thousand basis — the amount charged for reaching 1,000 readers.

"The drop in circulation means a drop in revenue. We cannot expect clients to pay inflationary increases in rates when audiences continue to dwindle. Add the price of petrol for distribution, the price of paper, and anyone will tell you that the print game is a battlefield."

Botha, like some print owners, is worried about the knock-on impact. "Declining revenue affects the quality of journalism. Poorer product leads to fewer buyers, leads to less revenue, leads to poorer product. It’s a vicious circle."

The last-quarter circulation figure for magazines was brighter — up 1.2% — but the category was down almost 15% on the previous year.

The secret to magazine success, says another media agency insider, is to specialise. This is borne out by big increases in titles such as Things To Do With Kids, which rose nearly 120%, and SA Rugby, which rose 27% quarter on quarter and 29% year on year. In the case of SA Rugby, the World Cup excitement would have played a role — but that only comes round every four years.

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