The economic downturn is hitting print products in the US hard, and the effects are also being felt in South Africa, writes Anton Harber in Business Day. Overall, declining circulations will hasten the move to online media.

Anton Harber writes:

Newspapers — and therefore journalism — will be changed forever by this economic downturn. For many US publications, the looming recession is speeding up the deterioration in the industry that has been happening for some time. The respected Christian Science Monitor — a non-profit publication— said last week it would cease publishing a daily paper after a century.

The Los Angeles Times retrenched 75 more people in its third recent round of firings. The New York Times Company has lost 700 jobs since May. Time Inc, publishers of Time magazine, Fortune, People and Sports Illustrated, cut 600 jobs. Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the country, laid off 10% of its workforce — about 3000 people.

Two weeks ago, TV Guide, one of the most famous names in magazines, was sold for $1, less than the price of a single copy.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism expressed concern that the bottom was about to drop out for the US industry. In its annual state of the news media report, it said already ill newspapers got sicker last year, with no hope for a cure this year.

US newspaper advertising revenue fell 7% last year, before the current downturn. The big drop-off was in classified adverts, which fled to the internet. Circulation was down 2,5% for all US dailies and 3,5% for Sunday papers.

As the New York Times put it: “Clearly, the sky is falling. The question now is how many people will be left to cover it.”

The problem is that audiences are moving faster to the internet than advertising, so while newspaper websites attracted 15,8% more visitors in the third quarter of 2008 than a year ago, they are not yet generating the income to fund news-gathering.

Newspapers are turning themselves into news operations offering material across a range of media. But the financial model to sustain this has not yet emerged.

At home, our tabloids are booming but almost every one of the older, more traditional newspapers has the same or smaller circulation than it did 40 years ago.

SOME, especially those whose readers will be the first to move to the internet, are making plans to cut back. Media24 is looking into merging editorial departments at its Afrikaans newspapers — Beeld, Burger, Volksblad and Rapport.

Peet Kruger, Beeld editor and head of the task team investigating this, told me this week that he was “preparing presentations to management and the board” .

“We believe that we have to prepare ourselves for a possible internet wave (tsunami has become such a cliche, but I guess that is what it could turn out to be) in the next couple of years. We plan to strengthen our paper products, position even better for strong internet growth, enable our journalists to operate across platforms, and improve the quality of journalism for the markets in which we operate across all platforms,” he said.


I have heard, but not been able to confirm, that Independent Newspapers is planning to merge all its sub-editing operations. Its newspapers are heavy carriers of classifieds, the first form of advertising to move online. Although internet uptake has stalled in SA , the expectation is that it will take off when the new undersea cables being laid make it cheaper and faster. This may take a while to affect the Daily Sun, but will quickly affect upmarket papers.

The changes will make newspapers more efficient and cost-effective, and are probably unavoidable. The effect, however, will be to increase the homogeneity of newspapers across the major groups and diminish the individual character of each publication.

Specialist interest areas, such as law or science, will increasingly move to the internet. There will probably be less and less traditional reporting unless it involves Britney Spears or David Beckham, a form of reporting that still pays for itself.

* Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at Wits University. This column first appeared in Business day on 12 November 2008.