Newspaper circulation figures are way down, and it may be this is not just the recession speaking, but a more fundamental shift away from print, writes Thabo Leshilo in The Times. But fortunately journalism does not depend on print, and Internet news sites are beginning to take off.  

Thabo Leshilo writes in The Times:

An upside to being off the treadmill of daily journalism, with its tyrannical deadlines and late hours, is that I can knock off in time to see my children under natural light, like the rest of humanity.

I do miss the adrenalin rush and the excitement of the unpredictable work day. But I don't envy my editors their jobs right now. I can do without the insomnia induced by plummeting newspaper sales and free-falling readership.

The recession is to blame. The tough economic times have hugely curtailed people's purchasing power. Rocketing food prices have ruled out discretionary expenditure for many. Newspapers cannot compete with bread and milk when families struggle to fill empty bellies on shrinking budgets.

I would love to say that all that shall pass when the economy starts picking up. But I'm afraid the halcyon days of high circulations are over for newspapers.

Eskom has dashed any hope there of a recovery. The price of electricity is to treble in three years, sending prices, including those of newspapers, sky high. And the trend to free news on the Internet, which has wreaked havoc with newspaper purchases overseas, will eventually come to our shores. We have been saved, so far, by our lousy Internet access.

All that is set to change as Telkom gets its act together. There is going to be blood on the floor. It's inevitable that some newspapers will die. Only the worthy ones that are able to master the environment they operate in, and offer a compelling read, will weather the storm.

But it need not be all doom and gloom. These can be exciting times. Thankfully, most old-school journalists and editors have taken a leap of faith. They have embraced the change and have – albeit slowly – stopped conflating journalism with the printed word.

Newspapers have been synonymous with journalism for centuries. But they are not journalism. That noble craft is platform agnostic. It has more than demonstrated its adaptability by also thriving on radio, television, podcasts, the Internet, cellphones and other multimedia platforms.

Change can take its toll. I remember vividly the angst that accompanied Sowetan's foray into the age of Internet publishing. It was in the latter half of 2006. Yes, we waited till that late. We dreaded the advent of the New Age so much that we wouldn't broach the subject, privately hoping our aversion to the future would prevent its inevitable dawn.

Thankfully, the industry had the foresight not to try to swim against the tide. Almost every major newspaper has gone multimedia. The print and online versions of newspapers are complementary.

So far, there is no evidence that the exponential growth of online readership is hurting the print media locally. In fact, the profile of the online reader differs from that of the reader of the printed newspaper, showing that newspapers have attracted new readers. It remains to be seen how long this cosy relationship lasts before cannibalism sets in.

The latest readership figures – for the six months to June – show that Sowetan has 1.5-million readers; The Times 375000, the Daily Dispatch 298000 and The Herald 232000.

Sowetan Online now has 6million unique page impressions a month and 288000 unique users. The comparable figures for Times LIVE (The Times and Sunday Times) are 4million and 870000; Daily Dispatch (includingSaturday) 1.4million and 100000 to 130000, The Herald (including Weekend Post)1.7million and 121000. Sunday World has 1.1million page impressions and 80000 unique users. The beauty of it is that Sowetan is making a modest profit online. Welcome to the future.

* Leshilo is Avusa's Public Editor. This column first appeared in The Times on 27 November 2009.