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The terrifying collapse of newspapers is here

Sooner or later, the economics simply no longer hold up.
In an era where fake news and propaganda is pervasive, there are fundamental reasons to be concerned. Image: Shutterstock

Audit Bureau of Circulations data for the fourth quarter of 2020 is harrowing: there will be no rebound for print, and newspapers in particular.

The long, slow structural decline of the sector in South Africa has reached the point of no return. Circulations for daily newspapers are down by 40%, on average, over one year. Not included in this drop are the two titles that ceased publication as dailies during 2020: Die Volksblad (Bloemfontein) is now “digital only” while the DFA (Kimberley) now only publishes on Fridays.

In extreme cases, including many titles in the Independent Media stable, the declines are over 60%. Total circulation for the Pretoria News is down 80% since 2019. It sells just over 1 900 copies a day now.

Certain titles have fared better, with year-on-year declines of under 20%. Die Burger, which seems to be thriving in the vacuum being produced by the regression of the Cape Times and Cape Argus (both down 62%), saw circulation down only 7%.

‘Free circulation’

Some titles are being propped up by free circulation, where thousands of free copies are given away daily to help the papers justify their advertising rates. The Star has “free circulation” of 8 157 copies a day, which accounts for nearly four in 10 of its papers “sold”. If one considers paid circulation only, Business Day sells just 1 162 fewer copies a day than The Star.

Across a five-year period (since Q4 2016), the declines are even more dramatic.

Overall, circulation for the 17 daily papers in the country is 60% lower. Eight papers have seen declines of more than 60%, with Pretoria News down 87%, The Star down 75% and Cape Argus and Cape Times each down around 70%. The best performing title since 2016 is The Citizen, with a circulation decline of 32%.

Daily circulation Q4 2020 Q4 2019 Q4 2016 2020 vs 2019 2020 vs 2016
Beeld, Daily 23823 29021 41682 -18% -43%
Burger, Die 32829 35415 50258 -7% -35%
Business Day 13423 18201 22069 -26% -39%
Cape Argus 8932 23814 29796 -62% -70%
Cape Times 9643 25376 30781 -62% -69%
Citizen, The 30012 36966 44390 -19% -32%
Daily Dispatch 10827 13624 19649 -21% -45%
Daily News 8955 19606 24610 -54% -64%
Daily Sun 57459 99485 181330 -42% -68%
Herald, The 11533 14342 18010 -20% -36%
Isolezwe 39463 60651 90724 -35% -57%
Mercury, The 11250 21202 26165 -47% -57%
Pretoria News 1957 9942 14515 -80% -87%
Son 25666 43206 74103 -41% -65%
Sowetan 27736 55248 82624 -50% -66%
Star, The 22282 55889 84168 -60% -74%
Witness, The 8252 9935 13597 -17% -39%
Total 344042 571923 848471 -40% -59%

Of course, the decline is not new, nor is it unique to the South African market. Daily news has become a commodity and is freely available on the internet. Weekend papers have hardly fared much better. Circulation of the Sunday Times is down 44% over one year. Certain titles have done themselves few favours and are suffering material issues around credibility.

Still, cover prices continue to climb to cover the cost of printing and trucking papers around the country. But it’s the advertising that pays the real bills. As this has steadily dropped, newsrooms have been ruthlessly cut to the bone. This has kept titles profitable, albeit some very marginally so. There are no more cuts to be made.

What makes the stark declines in 2020 different is that for many titles, these new lows mean ever increasing advertising rates are simply no longer defendable.

Covid-19 will be blamed (one estimate puts the decline in print ad spend last year at over 30%), but the coming reckoning is inescapable for many.


Advertising agencies will measure the cost of reaching 1 000 people across various media types and products. With the dramatic drops over the past year, these numbers will have skyrocketed. This surely means that price-and-product advertising by the national retailers, the only real national advertising left in daily papers, will start to fall away as the costs of reaching every 1 000 people are no longer rational. Already, much of this is being sold at steep discounts simply to ensure annual commitments.

Once this happens, papers will shrink even further and the economics will reach a point where it no longer makes sense for many of these titles to publish. One or two may pivot to a free model to prop up circulation and defend the advertising they do have. (If Independent Media was run as a normal business, the two Cape titles would have been merged and Pretoria News would’ve likely been shut years ago.)

What happens when these 17 titles shrink to a dozen? This is a very real possibility.

In an era where fake news and propaganda is pervasive, there are fundamental reasons to be concerned.

Worse, how do we hope to hold government to account when there are simply no newsrooms or skills within them to do so?

(There are already precious few experienced journalists left.)

Reasons for hope

There are reasons to hope. Daily Maverick, Ground Up, amaBunghane, News24 and Netwerk24 as well as niche sites like Moneyweb, TechCentral and MyBroadband/BusinessTech have built sustainable, sizeable businesses online.

Increasingly, they are using business models that favour subscription. Online advertising will yield some revenue, but no one is able to run a news organisation on Google AdWords or programmatic advertising revenue. The numbers aren’t big enough. Added to this is the fact that print publishers lost much of the opportunity to convert their advertisers to digital long ago.

Two fundamental questions remain: how does the news industry convert many more than the few thousand people who already pay to become online subscribers? And how do digital publishers attract ad spend away from hyper-efficient Facebook and Google?

Listen to Nompu Siziba’s interview with Anton Harber, professor of journalism at Wits (or read the Journalism is in crisis transcript):



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The concern that journalism is dying is very real. MW have demonstrated this rather adequately by padding their empty columns with their left wing propaganda onslaught from the Conversation. In a post truth world we live with cancel culture. People are censored, deplatformed and whole servers are shut down to silence any dissent (e.g. Parler). Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter will soon control everything you read. It will be the left wing big tech narrative. About 50 per cent of my comments get deleted on MW so they are as guilty as the rest. A lie by omission, if you like. Every lie incurs a debt to the truth and one day that debt has to be paid.

Indeed Richard. Left wing censorship is real – even on this site !!

I have not watched CNN since the US elections and will boycott it indefinitely.

Why don’t you march to the Capitol to complain about it?

The left’s brainwashing has been successful, I see, in your case.

If you study what happened ie. don’t wach CNN et. al. you’ll find more left wing involvement then right wing. The first people arrested were ANTIFA. Unfortunately also the first released.

On Point!

There is no more balanced reporting in order for independent informed views to be formed. Everything is leftist libtard brainwashing.

This is precisely why we are switching to Retalk, Gab, Rumble et al. & will deplatform ourselves from Twitter, FB, YouTube, Google, et al.

Myricals ..awesome points …added to your list is Clubhouse which have the leftwing twitter nutjobs up in arms

I’m surprised that as much of 50% of what you write in trying to enforce your own position survives

Your comment makes no sense at all.
Firstly this article is about declining print circulation and thus declining advertising revenue.
Demonstrable link.
Secondly without any encouragement you jump down the rabbit hole of a left wing conspiracy
everywhere. If that were true then why would ALL journals/newspapers be suffering the same
fate here and globally.
Demonstrably true.
Thirdly, because you use the example of Twitter, revoking the rights of individuals to use the
platform is not a violation of US ‘First Amendment’ rights. That applies only to government
Legally true.
Fourthly the article makes reference to the relative prosperity of niche (read quality) publications
mainly in an online environment.
Demonstrably true.

Over time quality will win out – as it always does.

I was about to say the same Richard. The conservative voice gets deleted or berated by the leftist that control the delete button.
The sooner these publications die the better.

If you read or watch the news you are most likely being fed propaganda or fake news. You end up a nervous wreck and get anxiety diseases.

I stopped watching the news altogether with the exception of financial news.

I will rather watch the “90 day bride on DSTV”, go to gym, visit the girlfriend, go cycling, go hiking, go to the cinema.
Just no time for news!

Well with all the fake news and journo’s pushing “their” feelings into their stories, it’s a wonder people are turning off

People aren’t turning off. They simply do not want to spend money on old news in newspapers.

People also want to selectively choose what they want to read rather than buy a whole newspaper with sections they are not interested in. The same has happened in the music industry. Gone are the days where you buy an album where only 2 of the 12 songs are hits.

“They simply do not want to spend money on fake news and woke propaganda.”

There. Fixed it for you.

Sensibility at last .I buy newspapers so that the dog has somewhere to poo .All my info I get from the net.Jouirnalists do good work ,but that does not sell ,so they dish out untruths to catch your attention .Donald Trump is my Hero when it comes to how he handled the corrupt media

You make a good point. Opinion has always been a valuable part of main stream media but these days far too many ‘news” items are actually opinion pieces.

Journalists must learn to Code and soon

It did not help that a lot of the papers were seen repeating the BS government line hook line and sinker.

Not terrifying in the least. It’s completely expected. Print media has been on the decline since the internet came along.

A more worthwhile effort at an article like this would be to compare sales/distribution numbers from 2000 to 2020.

Then you’ll see how it’s really died.

I haven’t bought a newspaper in over 10 years. I can remember buying one 12 years ago when I moved to Cape Town and quickly wanted to find a place to stay.

That’s the last.

No loss and only terrifying if your only skill set is in print media. I get delivered 2 free local papers a week which go unread to recycling if they aren’t used to clean windows.

My dad used to buy The Star and Sowetan daily. On the an odd day he would get a copy of The Citizen. On Saturday, we got The Saturday star with the propery section. On Sunday, we had Sunday Times and City press and one tabloid that interested him (Him, not my mom). The tabloid of choice was between Sunday world and Sunday Sun (Sun babe, wooo! Loved sneaking a pic of these).

My younger brother gave him an iPhone 6, he joined twitter and now he hasn’t bought a news paper consistently for 2 years solid.

I’ve tried to get him to buy these news papers through apps but the prices just don’t make sense and the method of buying is just out of touch for an old man like him.

What would I suggest? Maybe have prepaid vouchers for the digital news papers. These vouchers can be sold by the man in the street. But the man in the street must accept more than cash, he/she must have a terminal that allows me (more modern than Dad) to also buy the voucher.

Redeeming this voucher should not just give my Dad a pdf version of the paper. It must be something as easy to read as Tweets. With adjustable fonts for his aging eyes.

News papers have a future without the paper. But they need to re-invest for a few years. Try new things and then they stand a chance. Simply wanting to sell a PDF for the same price just won’t cut it!

Never ceases to amaze me how one the FIRST pages that are cut down to minimal, and even negligible, proportions, are the “letters to the Editor” pages.

There’s REAL value for readers in these comments. I often find for example, that the comments in Moneyweb, raise important issues the article author either ignored, or had a skewed understanding of.

And in my ignorance of the subject, I had no idea this was the case, until this alternative view was articulated!

I find I tend to gravitate towards sites (online and offline) where there are healthy, knowledgeable, and robust comments, and avoid sites where comment is suppressed or inane (like Twitter).

My other observation on the decline of printed media is that reading (particularly with active comprehension) is “hard work”, and therefore actively avoided by the greater majority of the SA population.

Try and buy any newspaper in a township store, or any cafe in a metropolitan area that serves this community, and you will be hard-pressed to find one!

Why? They can read. Just don’t like doing so.

And therein lies a massive reason for the CONTINUED “ineducability” of the masses.

The problem is that while schools can teach kids HOW to read, this is of limited future value, because the permanent motivation for “liking to read” comes from the PARENTS – not the teachers.

Journalism died the moment it gave up objectivity for activism.

The solution is simple: make Twitter, Google and Facebook contribute to keeping newspapers alive. They have sucked a huge amount of advertising revenue away from the fourth estate and should be made to contribute to their continued survival. Reporting the news is a vital service to the community and needs to be supported. Facebook and Google can easily afford it!

Won’t work. At all.

Because this is in denial of the forces driving this changing situation.

The problem is that the “fixed format” of a newspaper, or other printed media like magazines, has been superseded by a MUCH more flexible, responsive, and easily-accessible form of information dispersal ie the internet – available on your smartphone wherever you may be.

That this new media is largely free, and also (literally!) up to the minute, only adds to the compelling attraction for newshounds.

The trend is now clear. Newspapers of yore are dinosaurs on their way to extinction. Fact!

I don’t when last I bought/read a newspaper.

As for news its all the same whether newspapers Tv or online – the lies the fake news the opinion pieces – the left, the right, the centre

its all crap. The only good news is now No News.

Journalist have morphed into political activists ,all with an agenda. Some by choice, others simply to continue earning a living. Despite the widely held belief, most people are NOT stupid, they see a version of reality on their screens, their magazines and other media (including print) that simply DOES NOT exist in their respective worlds. On a subconcious level they start questing why the media tell us 1 thing, but our lived reality is usually completely different. As this conflict between media reality and lived reality grows, people eventually start believing their own experiences and disconnect from the media that causes this internal conflict. The print media is simply a few years ahead of electronic media, as the “narrative” grows, so too does the conflict and soon, this same disconnect with electronic media will take place in electronic format as well. Once this disconnect becomes widespread, the polarisation of people will accelerate as we can no longer differentiate between differing viewpoints and outright propaganda.

Excellent points!

The problem with customising the Internet to one’s own personal preferences is that one creates an echo-chamber which just provides a one-sided view of the world that plays to your weaknesses. And insulates you from thw wider reality around you.

All of which just pushes people into polarised camps where they are ignorant of – and intolerant of – other viewpoints.

The only way to counter this to deliberately and constantly expose yourself to CONTRADICTING views – especially the ones that you may even detest.

Very few even try to do this. And even fewer succeed…

And that shows immediately in the political discourse.

Very well said. For some time the journalists’ largely one dimensioned agenda and opinion was effectively subsidised by the parts of the paper containing real value; adverts, sports, financials etc. Not for much longer. So the only people who read or buy the opinion or agenda pieces are, as you say the like minded; the editor who has a broad enough vision to see that all opinions should be aired has been replaced by one who follows policy, usually set by owners, who, in SA, are mostly politically correct, many brown envelope sycophants for the ANC regime.

So let them die.

Surprised it’s lasted this long. A comparative industry is the music industry, a family member worked in this industry and I remember actually seeing some of the answers they were trying to counter the online world. One thing was, what about the person who likes to visit the music store and flip through CD’s and their answer was a tiny memory card in a CD sized package with colorful album covers on it. This idea never made it into the stores and we sit years later with the last of the CD chains closing very soon namely Musica (see link below) and a family member out of work.

A very interesting documentary is “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records”. The US equivalent to say Musica, these guys tried every trick in the book to keep this once very lucrative and fun business going and it did not work. So the guy who flips records at the shop or the old man who likes to buy his newspaper at the vendor will be forgotten and we will ultimately go the cheapest and laziest way.

However Journalism is a bit different and we need to support free speech. The only way would be to legislate otherwise very soon big tech will totally dominate with their own agenda.,as%20a%20surprise%20to%20many.

Jokes aside, I literally only buy a newspaper once a week for my cat’s litter box. Journalism isn’t dead and will thrive beyond .. it’s just not on paper anymore

A headline created for Clicks only!
The Doom and Gloom interpretation of the latest ABC summary is based on about 20% of the market. This does not consider how well local papers are doing.
The combined circulation of local papers (free and sold) continues to be strong at 4.8 million copies in circulation every week. These titles have seen a 19% contraction in their circulation figures (year-on-year) and have minimised the printed copies that can no longer be distributed to businesses, educational institutions, hospitals and libraries due to Covid-19. The business model still allows for the economically active population to receive their local paper weekly, whether it is free or sold.

Free and sold local papers make up just over 78% of the total 6.1 million newspapers in circulation in the last quarter of 2020. Leaving the remaining weekend, weeklies and dally titles at 18% of the total newspapers in print.

It is still evident that in most regional and outlying metros, sold local papers remain the primary reference point for local news and shopping information in the areas they serve. These titles continue to be valuable news sources in their local communities and a viable medium for reaching these geographic markets.

Technology overtook print the same way email killed fax soon after it killed letters.

Nothing to do with politics as many claim here. Newspapers had the same echo chambers twenty years ago as online media has now. People bought leftwing paper A not rightwing paper B exactly how some people will now prefer NYT over Newsmax.

Ad-blockers are hurting online media the same way online media hurt printed media. I am guilty, I cannot stand sites with that time and bandwidth and space robbing garbage about Walmart Wardrobe Failures and Fashion Diets.

The future? People subscribe to a service that in turn gives them access to partner sites that do not get the real reader’s personal information. Most of the sites that give free registration to access the site then proceed to fill your inbox and sell your preferences.

I want an anonymous online experience and I do pay for good content free from advertising.

@ Johan_Buys

Have a look at DuckDuckGo. It is basically an interface that runs over browsers to protect you. About: DuckDuckGo is an Internet privacy company that empowers you to seamlessly take control of your personal information online, without any tradeoffs. With our roots as the search engine that doesn’t track you, we’ve expanded what we do to protect you no matter where the Internet takes you

I’ve been using it for about a month now, very happy so far.


I am a bit paranoid so even Google knows little about me. Proper VPN give excellent privacy. End of the day : what pays DuckDuckGo’s bills?

What I am referring to is that if I want access to even a free registration media site, I have to give them certain information that allows them to then also link that to what I am interested in, and sell that info.

I do trust some players, so for example I am OK with Apple handing an anonymous token to the media outlet (and paying them for what I consume).

Terrifying indeed. But if it is free, why should you pay for it? Remember if it is free then you are the product. And you no longer have control as to who is pushing down their views down your throat.

We are living in a changing world. No longer will a select few newspapers and journalists hold a monopoly information and opinion. Open debate and opinion is an essential element to freedom. When the comments section are disabled or heavily censored, I will support an alternative platform. I will light a candle for printed press in 4 years time. Big tech is next.

No matter whether your freedom is leftwing or rightwing, somebody somehow must pay the bills. I am no more in favour of NYTimes monetising me than I am in favour of NewsMax doing so. So I pay for certain sites

The odd occasion that I know what the real story is and I then read the newspaper article, I’ve wondered where the jurno was.
Reporting is bad. Not stating the facts anymore but feelings, options.
When I turn to the news, I want facts. Real facts. Not the jurno’s opinion or the circulation’s slant.
Using the capital hill storming as an example. MW only supports the anti-Trump slant. Does the media even do their own investigation or do you just regurgitate what you’ve been told to report?

I am astounded by the pro-Trump passion on display here. Maybe because I’m a libtard.

End of comments.





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