Newspapers sales on the slide

Things are shifting in our newspaper world, judging by the latest circulation figures.

Most daily newspapers showed serious decline, while weekly papers did better. Afrikaans papers plummeted in circulation, while the isiZulu papers thrived, according to the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures for the second quarter of 2011.

Worst hit were all the Media24 newspapers and some Independent News and Media titles.

Overall, this seems to reflect a decline in Afrikaans readership (perhaps shifting to English papers), strong growth in isiZulu papers and a serious circulation problem at Media24. Insiders say that Media24’s dramatic circulation drops were exacerbated by an internal circulation re-organization that went horribly wrong.

Most affected were Beeld (22% down year on year for the second quarter); Die Burger (16% down), Daily Sun (13%), Daily Son (13%), Cape Argus (12%), Daily News (10%) and Star (6%).
The Daily Sun is down to average sales of 381 000, dramatically lower than its highs of nearly 500 000 just two years ago.

The Sowetan lost 4%.

The only significant growth among daily newspapers came from Isolezwe, the Independent group’s isiZulu daily (about 10%), while the Times, a hybrid daily (part free distribution, part street sales) have raised their paid sales to 38 000, a strong growth off a small base.

Those which were steady or showed only small change were Business Day, Cape Times, Citizen, Daily Dispatch and the Mercury.

Among weekly newspapers, Ilanga had an astounding 32% increase, Soccer Laduma a very healthy 20% and Mail & Guardian a strong 5%.

Saturday papers generally dropped along with the daily counterparts: Saturday Star (down about 5%), Saturday Beeld (17%) , Saturday Burger (15%) , Weekly Argus (10%), Independent on Saturday (6%), Saturday Star (4%).

Among Sunday papers, Media24 titles were again hard hit: City Press down 11%, Rapport 12%, though Sunday Sun, Sondag and Son op Sondag were much steadier. The Sunday Times stayed on course, though at 463 000 they remain down from their peak of about 500 000 a few years ago.
Again the exception was the isiZulu title, with Isolezwe ngeSonto jumping a whopping 19%.

The long-term projections are equally depressing. Daily papers are selling a total of 180 000 copies every day less than they did just two years ago, with Afrikaans papers the biggest contributors to this decline. Weekend papers as a whole are down 4,4%. Free newspapers are significantly up because of new entrants to this market.

Media24’s distribution problems may not fully explain the long-term decline of some titles, though they probably exacerbated the trend. It may also explain the recent shake-up in management and editorial positions in that company.

Most of the newspapers said nothing about their latest circulation figures. Usually, they find some way of using the figures to their advantage, but this time around the silence of most indicates that there is no way of putting a positive spin on such dire figures.

Missing from all of this is New Age, the new ANC-supporting newspaper launched last year by the Gupta family. They do not appear to have made any dent on the market, though they are staying out the official numbers game by not joining the ABC. It is hard to see how they can sell adverts without audited figures, and how government departments can explain putting their ads in a paper when there is no way of knowing how many people they reach, and therefore now way of justifying the cost.

*This column first appeared in Business Day, 31 August 2011

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