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Print on borrowed time in Africa

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Rising Internet penetration in some African countries means that printed newspapers are living on borrowed time. Also, market research has revealed that many African readers are reaching for their mobile phones as their main news source, writes RUSSELL SOUTHWOOD of Smart Monkey TV.

As elsewhere globally, readers are increasingly using them for free online and online revenues are not matching print revenues. Also the information habits of the coming generation of African readers (18-25 year olds) are much more oriented to the speed of the Internet and social media. The danger for print newspaper owners is that they will wake up one day and their business will be gone.

The African print newspaper market runs a spectrum from well-written papers owned by public companies in the larger markets to struggling small papers with bad quality journalism, relying on the patronage of politicians or would-be politicians in the shadows.

Although African newspapers and their stories often provide the benchmark coverage for radio and TV, they are not as well used as broadcast media. The challenges of importing costly newsprint, low levels of literacy and the difficulties of physical distribution have kept newspaper circulations low. Whilst there are some “down-market” tabloids on the continent, the majority of papers are bought by middle class or elite readers.

Outside of radio and TV, news is received through a combination of print newspapers and the Internet. In terms of reading newspapers for news and information, use levels vary enormously as market research Balancing Act has conducted. In the face-to-face surveys in selected countries, it varied from 4% on a daily basis in Northern Nigeria or 13% in Tanzania to 28% in Senegal.

Use of the Internet for news and information on a daily basis, varied between 7% in Tanzania to 20% in Ghana, compared to 21% who read print newspapers. By contrast with the low daily print readership in Northern Nigeria (4%), 13% of respondents used the Internet to get news and information on a daily basis. Therefore within the overall population the Internet varies between being comparable in use to newspapers to being the same as or exceeding print newspaper use.

In the same research, the results from a survey of feature phone users and qualitative groups in selected countries emphasises how those with access to the Internet use their mobile phones for accessing both news and information. In the case of the feature phone users, using the Internet in this way comes just behind radio and TV as a means of getting news and information.

Some idea of how things will change in the future can be seen from the results of the feature phone country surveys. The use of the Internet to get news and information on a daily basis is considerably higher than within the general population: Ethiopia (55%): South Africa (62%): Ghana (63%): Kenya (68%): and Nigeria (69%). In other words, the young feature phone users surveyed are considerably more likely to use the Internet for news and information on a daily basis than the print equivalent. Feature phone users are in their millions in all African countries. In addition, as new young users join this mobile phone owning category, the level of daily use of the Internet for news and information is likely to increase.

These changes are already reflected in the more successful end of the newspaper business. A key newspaper in East Africa sells 220,000 copies daily. It claims each copy is ready by 25 people, which would give it a daily reach of 5.5 million people, a penetration of just over 20% of the 18+ population of the country. Industry experts in this country believe the number of readers is more likely to be between 15-18 readers per copy: the lower estimate would give it a daily reach of 3.3 million people.

The online readership varies between 2-5 million unique users a day, averaging around 3.5 million uniques a day. 55% of these unique users are from within the country, giving an average daily Internet reach of just over 1.9 million people. However, on the days when it attracts 5 million unique users, the Internet reach within the country is 2.75 million users.

In other words, Internet use of the newspaper is considerable and will likely catch up with print readership in the next 2-3 years. In another East African country, the Internet version of a key newspaper is seen by 2 million unique users daily in the country, a number that already exceeds the print reach of the newspaper. Those conducting a relatively recent South African survey make the same point in a different way: 22% of their respondents used the Internet daily against 17% who read a newspaper on a daily basis. Newspaper circulations in South Africa are on a downward trend.

Both of the East African newspapers given as examples above face a commercial dilemma that is very similar to those being experienced by newspapers in Europe and the USA. The overwhelming majority of their income comes from the pay-for print edition with only a very small proportion from the free online version.

African newspapers will also face increasing competition from bloggers, particularly where news topics are sensitive for publications close to the Government or individual politicians: for example, a successful general news blog in Cote d’Ivoire is attracting 600,000 unique visits a month.

Digital advertising on the Internet as a percentage of total advertising spend is currently below 2% in most Sub-Saharan African countries but the outliers (Airtel, Guinness) are spending 5-8% and others are likely to follow this pattern. Brand advertisers have become very interested in gaining a profile on social media. But until this change occurs, digital revenues – despite large online readerships – are tiny. And even if the balance between print and digital advertising changed immediately, experience elsewhere shows that digital advertising is much less profitable than print advertising.

Currently, the stronger African newspapers are sitting pretty. For example, out of work I did in a West African country, discounts on TV and radio advertising rates were often as high as 40-60%. By contrast, newspaper discounts were much lower at 10-15%. Newspaper advertising revenues have been protected from online in a number of key ways.

Government advertising – particularly things like tenders- goes into print newspapers, often with archaic laws that insist it appears in print. Also the African generation (50+) making these decisions feels much more comfortable with the physical reality of the print newspaper (available in the office reception) than the seemingly ethereal presence of the Internet. But these factors slowing down change will not be there forever and the loss of things like Government advertising by right will undermine the viability of the print market.

So how are African newspapers reacting to these changes? In the larger markets, it is a constant discussion and no-one really has many answers. In the smaller markets, it is almost as if it was not happening. One interesting company in online news terms is Ghana’s Multimedia Group (which runs TV and radio stations) which started early in the online news business and has attracted a considerable following.

Some attempts have been made to launch new hybrid print/online newspapers (one in Nigeria) but they have struggled to make much commercial impact. The patronage aspect of advertising still remains strong. No-one has yet launched a mobile news product to take advantage of the considerable number of smartphone and feature phone users.

Social media is increasingly both a competitor and marketing platform for media in general. Because social media does several things, people are confused by the role it plays and are therefore dismiss it as something young people use to organize their social lives. But it has many different uses: it is a way of keeping up with friends, family and colleagues: it has become a campaigning platform in some countries (for example, Angola): and it is a news medium. All of these different uses happen alongside each other and although some users segregate the professional from the personal, many appear not to.

The point to be emphasized is that all forms of social media serve as a source of news and information alongside more traditional media. People “like” news media¬† (newspapers, radio and TV stations) on Facebook to get information and receive similar “news” or “research” alerts from friends and colleagues.

Examples of high “likes” for media organisations are easiest to illustrate with those taken from Nigeria and South Africa. South Africa’s Metro FM has 301,208 likes and the Daily Sun 275,82 likes. In Nigeria, Information Nigeria has 1.4 million likes and Naija.com 1.25 million likes.

The newspaper itself is undergoing a radical redefinition: it used to where you went because you trusted someone enough (or had no other choices) to select your news and you did not have the capacity or resources to do it yourself. The Internet has changed that definition considerably.

In my own case, I read the Reuters international site on an iPad (but it could as well be a smartphone) that gives me international news of the kind that is also supplied to print newspapers. I also use a news aggregator site called News 360 that competes with another one called Flipboard. News 360 takes news from across the globe in high quality newspapers and other sources for topics I’m interested in. Professionally, www.allafrica.com is an invaluable continental resource gathering newspaper stories across the continent. As a Twitter user, every day a Tweet points me at something interesting I’ve not already seen.

The second identity crisis for the definition of newspapers is whether they remain text-based into the future. Every large national newspaper in Europe and the USA is dabbling and more with video. The Economist this week reports a major presentation by the New York Times (with ex BBC Mark Thomson at its head) of their 4 online “channels” and creating short shows inspired by its newspaper columns. They will also host videos from advertisers. The informing assumption is that ad revenues from this kind of activity will be better than for text based online activity.

So where is the online innovation in the African newspaper market? African Media Initiative have been helping journalists get to grips with Open Data but online innovation has not really arrived on the commercial side. Unless it does, African newspaper readers and owners may wake up one morning to discover that the reasons and revenues for print newspapers have disappeared.

See¬†Tobias Osmund, AP on how Sweden’s Aftonbladet newspaper has made a success of going online:

* Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

* Follow Gadget on Twitter on @GadgetZA

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