By Victor Ifijeh
These are trying times for print journalists the world over. Our beloved industry is facing unprecedented challenges. Publications are gasping for breath. The future looks uncertain. We are told that the end of what we labour daily to produce is near. Print, we are told, will go into extinction, ten years from now, some have said. They hinge their prediction on technological advancement – the impact of the Internet.
Doubtless, the Internet has transformed our lives. It has stirred a revolution of sort in the world of business. New ways of transacting business are evolving. Every field of human endeavour is affected. Transactions in banking have been made easy. With your phone, payments can be made and received, in the comfort of your home, outside the shore of where you are domiciled. In aviation, you book your flight, check in yourself and pick your preferred seat, using your phone. With the Internet, shopping is simplified.
In our field, information is now readily available. Its dissemination is now easier. With your smartphone you access whatever information that you need- free of charge. You are also bombarded with a deluge of information – fresh and timely. Time and space are no longer barriers. News is delivered through multiple platforms; social media comprising Facebook, lnstagram, Twitter; WhatsApp; traditional media such as newspaper, television and radio. The purveyors of news need not be those whose primary function is to keep the citizenry informed. Anybody who has access to a smartphone and can string words together is at liberty to keep others informed. He can watch the news and tell it his own way using his preferred channel.
Information is digitalised. The traditional way is being supplanted by the new media. Reliance on the old way is dwindling. The new way is the rave in town. This is the age we live in today – the information age, the computer age, the age of the lnternet. Everybody who cares is a reporter, an analyst, a publisher.
In 2006 when The Nation hit the newsstands, any time l was at the departure hall of the Murtala Mohammed airport in the morning, l was always delighted to see passengers either holding or reading newspapers while waiting for their flights to be called. These days you see only a few people with newspapers. What is common is people reading something of interest on their phones. Readers are abandoning the print for the new media. The reasons are not far – fetched. The news is delivered to them fast, well ahead of the print, and at no cost.
The prevailing situation has impacted negatively on the print. There is migration from print to online. Circulation of newspapers is tumbling. Advertising revenue is shrinking. The digital revolution may not be the sole factor for dwindling newspaper revenue. As is also very obvious here in Nigeria, the print is also affected by the poor state of the economy.
Like many manufacturing concerns, newspapers depend largely on imported inputs for production. Foreign exchange as we know, is hard to source. For months, you can be on the waiting list for forex at the official rate of N305 to the dollar. Few years ago, one US dollar exchanged for less than N200 and was readily available. With the high exchange rate today, the landing cost of imported materials for production has shot up by close to 200 percent. Cost of production has subsequently shot up.
With rising cost, newspapers have shrunk in size; they have reduced pagination and also reduced print run. There is no newspaper in Nigeria that prints the quantity it printed about five years ago. What percentage of the quantity now printed is sold? We dare not disclose the figures. The reason for the low sale is simple. Newspapers are regarded by many as a non- essential item and in a recession, such items are taken off the shopping list.
However, the effect of the Internet on print is more devastating. The digital revolution strikes at the core of the print business. While what basically constitutes journalism hasn’t changed over the centuries and may not change for years to come , how it is practiced is undergoing massive changes brought about by digital revolution.
Few years ago, proprietors of evening papers were smiling to the bank. The papers were first with breaking stories. The daily publications were uncomfortable but could not respond. The new media came and displaced the evening publications. Now, the new media are in fierce contest with morning publications.
Also some years back, the soft-sells were the favourites of those who loved to know the latest about celebrities, the high and mighty and the super rich. They had a field day. Then came the bloggers, gossip sites, whose targets are also the high and mighty. Today, many soft sell magazines are hemorrhaging.
The figures will perhaps tell the story better. To other countries we must go as no verifiable circulation figures are available here. In South Africa, the Audit Bureau of Circulations of newspapers (circulation statistics) released in May 2018 (ABC Q1 2018) showed that total newspaper circulation declined by 4 .4% year on year. Daily newspapers declined by 15.7% YOY, weekly newspapers by 12.5%, weekend newspapers by 9.2%, local papers by 6.0 % and free newspapers by 1.1 % year on year. In Q1 2018, the largest circulating Sunday Times of Johannesburg reported a figure of 260,132 copies. Another major paper – City Press – reported print run of 58,566 copies. In Q1 2014, Sunday Times circulated 405,458 copies, City Press sold 118, 676 copies. Both papers lost 50 % of their circulation within two years.
A 2015 study by Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that daily English and Kiswahili newspapers in the country have continued to decline owing to the growth of online. The circulation of daily English newspapers in 2015 fell to 98,548 copies from 102,000 in 2014, a drop of 3.4%.
In the United States, analyses by the Pew Research Center based on filings by newspapers with the Alliance for Audited Media (AAM), show that daily circulation (both print and digital) for US newspapers fell by 8% in 2016. Sunday papers also fell by 8%. Total daily circulation fell to 35million, Sunday circulation 38million, and the lowest since 1945, according to the Center. In 2014, the daily circulation was 40 million, down from 53 million in 2005, according to a study by KPMG on the decline of the print in the US. The free fall is attributed to the rise of the Internet.
The story is the same in the United Kingdom where it fell by 12% in 2015, 3% in Germany, with perhaps the exception being India where the ABC in the country said circulation rose from 39.1million copies in 2006 to 62.8million in 2016.
Data on advertising revenue also paint a dismal future for the print. The 2016 Mediafacts report, published by MediaReach OMD, showed that in Nigeria , print advertising in 2016 was N18billion from N24billion in 2015. This was out of a total advertising spending of N91billion in 2016 and N97.9billion in 2015.
Between 2005 and 2015, the US newspapers advert revenue fell from $47.4billion to $16.4billion, a 60 percent fall. Advertisers are migrating online to meet the readers.
To say that the print is seriously challenged is an understatement. To say that it is in decline is putting it mildly. One commentator says the print is dying slowly.The Independent and its sister publication, The Independent on Sunday, both UK quality newspapers, have died as print. From 428,000 daily sales figure in the eighties , The Independent could only sell 28,000 copies or less a day before it went into extinction as print few years ago.
We have local examples: PM News, The Source have been rested as print and gone digital.
Like in many countries, particularly in the West , credible digital papers have sprung up in Nigeria , breaking news , commenting forcefully on issues and doing what the print is doing editorially, sometimes better.
What is the way out for the print? Better still, how can the print survive the onslaught by the online?
Let me repeat what l proposed at the Guild of Editors conference in Asaba, Delta state last October. Newspapers, l said, must seize the initiative from online platforms, many of which use content from print to develop huge readership. Newspapers, particularly the leading ones, have the resources to develop credible and viable online platforms. In this regard, the attitude of many Nigerian managers on digital versions of their papers must change.
Few years ago, Ted lwere, a former managing director/editor –in-chief of The Daily Independent( a daily publication in Nigeria) advocated what he called ” digital first ” mentality . By this, he meant that online platforms of newspapers should not be seen by editors of such papers as a distraction, that is, as secondary to the print. While the traditional mode of reporting cannot be discarded, digital revolution offers additional channels for media organisations to reach audience beyond their immediate coverage areas. The You Tube channel, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other micro – blogging platforms boost of hundreds of million of global readers that the hard copies will certainly never reach. In this era of ‘ fake news, ‘newspapers can leverage on their credibility to attract more online readership.
Aside advert insertions in newspapers, the digital platform can also be used by the print to boost revenue. Google Adsense, analytics and sponsored posts among others are tools that can be used to grab more share of the cake available to online platforms.
New York Times, The Wall Street Journal are publications that have boosted their online presence, adding hundreds of thousands digital subscriptions yearly. The Wall Street Journal was the first to ask its online readers to pay for its digital content. This was in 1997. It stuck to this policy and has not looked back. It has well over 1,000,000 digital subscribers.
The model of the New York Times is different. The paper allows readers of its digital content to access not more than 10 articles a month free. To have unlimited access, you must subscribe. The paper’s “metered subscription model” has paid off. It has been adopted by many US newspapers. The paper also has over a million digital subscribers.
Niche publication. Marketers talk of product differentiation. Every publication must be known for something unique. Let that one thing stand it out. If it appeals to readers they will stick with the publication. If that one thing is in the digital platform readers will migrate there to find it.
Content development/ rebranding: it must be on-going. This calls for creativity. Newspapers should create new and exciting sections from time to time, drop those sections that no longer appeal to readers and strengthen those that are well received.
How do we determine popular and unpopular sections? Through appropriate mechanisms for feedbacks. Through audience surveys. Through engagement with readers. Engagement translates into reader loyalty that can last for years. The Guardian of London has rebranded, to make it more appealing to readers, and also cut cost. It is now a slimline tabloid.
We must turn our publications into market places of ideas and resist attempt to censor readers. Divergent views, no matter how critical they may be, must be accommodated in today’s digital world. Readers have many choices. If you gag them, they move elsewhere.
Special publications: By this, l mean well researched publications that are not advert- driven. The publication could be annual or quarterly. They can be done in conjunction with experts in the universities or consulting agencies.
The young generation: The demographics of readers have changed. Many under 40 are IT savvy. They access news and information on their phones and other devices. The print is certainly not their favourites. We risk losing them forever except we give them what excites them.
At the Asaba Guild of Editors conference, l advocated a change in the business model of newspapers. For ages, the business has been run on credit: copies are given to agents on credit, adverts are published on credit, thus leaving owners and managers at the mercy of agents and advertisers. In other sectors, payment is made before services are rendered. In our industry, our products are consumed before payment is made. This explains the high collectibles of many print organisations . The collectibles eventually go bad and are written off.
Collaboration to cut costs is something that can no longer be postponed. So much has been said about this over the years – in the area of circulation – with little being done.
Print organisations should think of ways of working together to help one another. We spike unwanted words, phrases and clauses in stories. We must take the knife to bloated aspects of our operations if we are not to be crushed by being overweight.
Related to this are the investment options appropriate for the moment. This is not the time to do things just because others are doing them. The times call for strategic approach to management. We must invest more in human capital – enhancing the skills of reporters and the staff in general. The skill gap in the media must be addressed . Only well – trained multi -media journalists can compete well in this digitalised age.
Multiple streams of income: The late Babatunde Jose turned the Daily Times into a conglomerate. Aside newspapering, Daily Times was into property and entertainment. Income from non editorial ventures strengthened the editorial aspect of the group. This is a model that the buoyant papers should consider to secure their tomorrow.
Media acquisition and merger: It is not popular here in our industry but a common occurrence in the West. Trinity mirror, owners of The Mail has acquiredDaily Express and other publication in the Express Group. The Mirror wants to be in a vintage position to be able to do two things: shore up its revenue from print and compete in the digital market for advertisements. It said it would pool resources and cut cost by merging operations. This option is worth trying here.
Victor Ifijeh is the Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, The Nation Newspaper