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Dailies are dying, but can Sunday papers thrive?

Surely the heydays of corporates spending millions on newsprint are under threat.

Last week, I described how the total circulation of the country’s ten largest daily newspapers has dropped by 29% in the last five years. From a base of 1.41 million combined daily sales in the first quarter of 2010, 413 673 have disappeared. That’s a massive number.

The three largest (fastest?) declines have been Daily Sun (-44%), Beeld (-43%) and The Star (-42%). Only African language newspapers and the regional papers in tertiary (and some secondary) markets are holding up. It’s an ugly sight.

The numbers don’t look much better for Sunday papers.

Rapport leads the decline. Between Q1 of 2010 and Q4 of last year, sales dropped 40%. City Press and Sunday World follow at declines of 38% and 37%, respectively. Sunday Sun sales are 30% lower over the five years. The Sunday Times’s decline is half that. Sales dropped 16.5% over the period. Only in the most recent three quarters, has the Sunday Times sold less than 400 000 copies a week. That’s an extremely good showing across the 20 quarters, especially against the backdrop of the broader market.

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The numbers above are all for total circulation. On a core circulation basis, which only counts subscriptions and copy sales above 50% of the cover price (in other words, excluding discounts and free copies), the Sunday Times has managed to remain in a range of between 387 053 and 401 561 for all 20 quarters.

The figures for Rapport, especially, are troubling. (They mirror Beeld’s decline.) The drop in sales started to accelerate in the middle of last year and have remained in double digits (year-on-year) for six of the last seven quarters.

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City Press’s strategy of competing with the Sunday Times head-on, might’ve succeeded in moving its readership upmarket, but the circulation slump tells another story.

In Q1 2010, its circulation was 38% the size of the Sunday Times’s. Fast-forward to Q4 2014, and now it’s only 28% the size of the big gorilla.

The readership (claims by the paper) versus circulation (audited sales) debate kicks into high gear when it comes to Sunday papers. There’s a lot of advertising at stake.

Sunday Times says it has 3.436 million readers on sales of 390 738 (its Q2 figures for last year). Rapport claims 1.338 million readers on its Q3 2014 circulation of 168 313, while City Press claims almost 2 million readers (1.996 million) on its Q3 circulation of 113 911. Quite why these papers are selling advertising on six- or nine-month old data is another question altogether…. 

Given that Sunday Times has managed to spare itself a 30%-plus drop in sales, its newsroom has remained largely ‘undecimated’ (cuts have been nowhere near the extent of its competitors).

But if the reality is this bleak, what’s the future of the weekend paper?

There’s a school of thought that suggests the New York Times will at some point in the next few years stop printing its daily edition and only focus on a Sunday printed product.

Why? The Sunday paper reading habit is one that has been part of our lives for many decades. Of course, that in itself is no reason to remain. However, it’s the one day of the week where we have the time and freedom to sit back on the couch or at the dining room table (or lie back in bed) and read the paper.

I’d argue that newspapers (particularly in the developed world) are slowly shifting to become a premium product. This will be true of urban, middle-class areas of developing (/emerging) markets too.

Dailies don’t stand a chance. There’s far too much competition from the internet (desktop and mobile), mobile apps and Twitter.

Weekend (primarily Sunday) papers do at least have a chance.

But the survivors (in the medium to long term) will surely be premium.

I’m talking FT Weekend-type premium.

Expensive, very high-quality content.

It’s sad that the then Avusa (now Times Media Group) tried this with The Weekender, and then promptly canned it. Had it been given the chance, I’m pretty sure it would still be around today (and it would more than likely be more profitable than the Business Day). And I’d venture Peter Bruce agrees.

I wonder which of the media groups are brave (desperate?) enough to launch a premium weekend read that squarely targets the typical ‘Business Day’ audience.

For now, the big three papers soldier on.

The Sunday Times (particularly) is the de facto medium for the country’s banks and mobile operators to launch products, price promotions, competitions, and, in the case of the cell networks, summer campaigns. Car companies and retailers use the Lifestyle magazine to achieve the same thing (mostly with wrap-arounds which are the norm, not the exception).

In fact, some of these companies – thankfully not all – have made announcements to the media on a Friday afternoon about the announcement they’ll be making in the Sunday press. Go figure.

A double-page spread in the main paper will set an advertiser back well over R1 million. Add a strap across the front page, and you get closer to R1.5 million. 

The banks and telcos remain willing buyers. It’s still the go-go nineties (without the cigarette ads).

One wonders how long this will still be the case.

All we need is one of those to pull off a launch online. Imagine taking over every single major web property in the country for a day with a truckload of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter advertising to boot. My bet is it will be a lot cheaper – and a lot more effective – than a front page strap (or worse yet, a false front page) and a few pages of ads deeper in the paper.

I could think of a lot more uses for R1 million than a few pages of newsprint.

All we need is one. And the whole house of cards will surely start tumbling down…

* Hilton Tarrant works at immedia. While working at Moneyweb, he was effectively seconded to a Caxton digital project for two years.

** Moneyweb is majority owned by Caxton. 

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