Sowetan editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH
Sowetan editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela. Picture: DAILY DISPATCH

SOUTH African newspapers remain under intense pressure, Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) figures for the second quarter of 2013 showed this week.

Newspapers recorded an overall average circulation decline of 3.2% from 3.8-million physical copies in the first three months of 2013 to 3.68-million copies between April and June. These figures include average weekly and daily sales for the major commercial papers.

The year-on-year drop from the corresponding period in 2012 was even more dramatic, showing a decline of 10.5% from 4.1-million.

Out of 20 newspapers only The Sowetan and The Times showed both quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year improvements, although marginal. While The Herald increased 0.6% year on year, it had a sharp quarter-on-quarter decline of 4.8%. The Cape Argus was up 0.2% on the quarter, but fell 5.8% on the year.

Overall, dailies fell 2.7% quarter on quarter and 8.4% year on year. Weekly newspapers fell 2.2% on the quarter and 7.7% on the year, while weekend newspapers fell 3.4% and 12.5%, respectively.

Sowetan editor Mpumelelo Mkhabela said he was pleased with the newspaper’s performance but added there was still work to be done.

"In the current difficult trading climate our performance is quite commendable but it doesn’t mean there’s no space to grow," he said. "There’s a lot of scope to continue to grow not just the newspapers, but also other sources of news such as social media and other digital products.

"Our current circulation (99,517) can’t be compared with our previous peak (more than 200,000 in the mid-1990s). Back then, there was far less competition and there was no widespread digital news access as we have today. The global industry is under pressure and publishers need to be innovative," he said.

According to the South African Audience Research Foundation’s All Media and Products Survey (Amps), about 50% of the South African adult population are newspaper readers and 48% are magazine readers, while only 22% are internet users.

South Africa’s print media industry is somewhat sheltered from the global drop in newspaper circulation as broadband access is still underdeveloped.

Print media still enjoys about 19.3% of the R34.4bn of advertising money spent in the country.

However, Wadim Schreiner, CEO of industry research provider Media Tenor, said the trend of decline would continue.

"Germany recently reported that its newspaper circulation was down 14% year on year," he said. "This is a great cause for alarm for newspapers, but this trend is nothing new.

"The industry has been in decline for a number of years and media organisations need to realise that they are five to seven years away from having only very few titles available. We have to create a new mechanism for generating revenue from news."

While Mr Schreiner named The New York Times and the Financial Times as publications that have successfully migrated readers to paid-for digital platforms, he said this migration had not yet made up for the loss of revenue caused by the decline of the traditional advertising-based model.