Remember when newspapers boasted of their sales figures? So why were they so quiet last week?

Remember the time when newspapers used to crow about their quarterly circulation figures? They had a way of finding good news even when their circulation was down: if you compare streets sales with the last quarter of 1934, you will see that our circulation has shot up in Benoni – that was the kind of thing they would do, adorned with graphs that always pointed upwards and had their rivals’ sales pointing downwards.

Their rivals, of course, had graphs that showed the exact opposite, which they would achieve by comparing sales in Brakpan since 1963. It was a quarterly triumph of statistical creativity and a regular moment of the sunshine journalism these papers would otherwise disdain.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures for South African newspaper sales came out last week. You might not have noticed, as this time around most newspapers stayed absolutely silent. Not a word, not a graph, not a peep.

What does that tell you? That the news was so bad that they couldn’t find anything good to say. Not even about Benoni or Brakpan.

Here are the raw facts. Total sales for daily newspapers dropped from 1,68-m to 1,53-m (daily average) in the last year. Total sales of weeklies, went up slightly from 652 000 to 666 000 (weekly average) – but only because Soccer Laduma went up while all others slipped. And for weekend papers, the total fell from 2,42-m to 2,27-m (weekly average).

Ouch!

No wonder everyone is talking about digitalisation.

I hope Iqbal Survé of Sekunjalo sees these figures before his consortium parts with R2-bn for the Independent newspaper group. Their Star fell about 20% to 102 244; their Cape Argus fell nearly 20% to 32 337 average daily sales; their Cape Times also fell about 20% to 34 627; Daily News fell about 10% to 30 743; the Mercury had a terrific time, falling only 5% to 29 761. Pretoria News’ 20% fall to 17 576 means they can probably start printing it on the office photostat machine.

These figures include digital subscriptions and all the circulation-boosting tricks in the book, by the way. If you take out giveaways and bulks sales, the Star’s street sales and subscriptions, as an example, only number about 80 000.

Afrikaans newspapers continued their downward slide: Beeld down 10% to 66 132; Burger a small drop to 61 484; Daily Son about 10% to 96 598.

Even those newspapers which had been bucking the general trend, did not do so this time. isiZulu newspaper had mixed results, breaking their pattern of consistent growth. The shining star was Isolezwe, of the Independent group, whose daily, Saturday and Sunday editions all went up significantly. Ilanga and umAfrika, however, saw all their editions go down. Mail & Guardian had a small drop of about 3% (what in other times we would call a large drop), to 49 000.

The Daily Sun continued its downward trend from its peak of near 500 000, now down to 322 324. It is clear that that Media24’s sales have never recovered from their big subscription computer blow-up of two years ago.

Caxton’s Citizen had a modest drop to 64 627.

The Sunday Papers dropped less, but still dropped: the Sunday Times made a small dip to 449 799, but this continues a trend that has seen them slowly slide from around 500 000; Rapport lost 5 000 sales to hit 213 460; City Press lost around 15% to hit 126 400; Sunday Sun collapsed to 184 417, a loss of 14%; Sunday World dropped to 130 656.

So the only good newspaper news came from Soccer Laduma, Isolezwe and the Herald in Port Elizabeth, which went up a few hundred copies. There was also growth among free newspapers, which now total 6,1-m copies – but then to grow this sector all you have to do is give more away for nothing.

If you want to understand the long-term trends, total daily newspaper sales in 2009 were 1,96-m – and they are now 1,53-m. Between 2002 and 2009, the figures were boosted largely by the new tabloids, which found a new market and grew quickly over about five years. The older newspapers were generally staying in the same place or dropping. But since the tabloids have joined the downward trend in the last two years, this has brought total newspaper sales tumbling down. In the last year or two, the three isiZulu newspapers bucked the trend, as did some of the weeklies, but this seems to have come to an end.

This is not to say that newspapers will disappear, just that they will shrink and only thrive as part of multiplatform news operations. But that’s an issue for another day.

* I should highlight the one article which found an hilarious way to trumpet the growth of newspapers, in the face of all this evidence. The Saturday Star’s marketing page had a piece by an anonymous writer which told us that newspapers are NOT dying because “the print sector is growing in SA and India”. Never mind the conflation of newspapers and print (because there is growth in some print, like consumer magazines); never mind a confusion when it says that much of the growth is in fact in non-print platforms. It cited a total circulation growth since 1970 from 3,8-m newspapers to 22-m today – but with no indication of what was included in these remarkable figures. It made no allowance for changes, such as the fact that free newspapers – currently the biggest sector – were not counted in 1970. Nor that we had far fewer newspapers then, most of which had come in periods of growth which had reversed in recent years. Nor did it tell you that most of our major newspapers now have significantly lower sales than they had back then when they mostly only catered for white readers. In 1960, the Star sold 183 000 copies and it is down to almost half that; the Cape Argus sold 105 000 and now sells 32 000… It was a masterpiece of self-serving obfuscation. Who says sunshine journalism is dead?

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