As my car comes to a halt at a red traffic light, the newspaper vendor approaches, waving the latest broadsheet.
“Take one,” he pleads. And when I decline: “How about some change so I can eat tonight.”
Thabo Dube has been selling newspapers on one of Cape Town’s main traffic intersections for more than a decade. But in the past couple of years, he has fallen on hard times.
“I used to be able to make a living from this job, but now I also have to beg to make ends meet,” sighs the lanky father of three, as cars speed past.
As a newspaper salesman, the 43-year-old doesn’t earn a fixed salary. Instead, he buys a stack of newspapers at a reduced vendor price each dawn and takes home whatever profit he makes from sales that day. If he can’t sell the whole stack, he barely cuts even. Some days, he makes a loss. Dube is feeling what many international media experts have been preaching over the past few years—print is becoming an endangered species. The future of news is digital. Instead of buying a daily newspaper or taking out a subscription, more and more people read news on the internet, tablets or their mobile phones.
It all began in the United States and Europe where the growth of the internet and mobile media access has already sparked the demise of the news industry as we know it. Traditional print media are struggling to make profits. Countless newspapers and magazines have had to lay off staff. Some publications have gone out of circulation. Although African print media have not yet experienced the same slowdown, they are on a straight path towards digital media consumption, experts say.
“The way people consume media in Africa will change dramatically,” predicts Justin Arenstein, manager of the African News Innovation Challenge (ANIC), an internationally-funded initiative that sponsors digital media projects on the continent and consultant to the world’s top search engine provider, Google, as well as the Knight Foundation, a US-based foundation that supports innovative journalism.
What is a fact in the States and Europe is becoming equally true for Africa. Today’s consumers don’t go to a single place for their news. They prefer to access information in ways most convenient to them: by scanning through different sources of content digitally, reading bits and pieces from various publications instead of reading one newspaper indiscriminately from front to back. Readers don’t want editors and journalists to tell them what’s pertinent any longer; they would rather search for specific sites and content that is relevant to their lives, depending on what topics or geographic areas interest them most. That’s especially true for the tech-savvy, digitally literate young generation that demands content to be audio-visual rather than printed black on white.
Print publications in Africa have started to feel the pinch.
“Newspaper and magazine sales are dropping. Publishing houses need to understand why and come up with alternative solutions to maintain a healthy revenue stream,” suggests Dawn Rowlands, CEO for sub-Saharan Africa at digital communications group Aegis Media. There is only one solution to prevent losses, she says: “Print needs to evolve to content provision.”
That means getting content to people should take priority, while the platform used to reach readers is secondary.
That’s easier said than done. The convergence from print to digital has been, and still is, a difficult road for most print media houses. Although newspaper owners realize they have to expand their business model to include digital media, they are not too sure how to make it work and how to monetize it. There is also a great reluctance to change, despite the fact that profits are tumbling. Most publications’ attempts to keep up with the digital revolution have been half-hearted, defensive and often even arrogant.
“It’s a head-in-the-sand approach. Although many African newspapers have developed an online presence it has financially not been that successful,” says Rowlands.
The focus remains on print, with online editions being the poor, low-quality cousins.
In the long run, ignoring the digital trend will not pay off, Rowlands warns. Although people may continue buying a newspaper on a weekend for a leisure read, she is convinced that print media as we know them will vanish within the next decade. The lesson for many print media houses will therefore be a tough one: those that don’t adapt will die.
“Eventually we will see the death of traditional print media in Africa, maybe in the next 10 years,” predicts Rowlands.
Only media houses that reconsider how they approach consumers and that reinvent themselves on the internet and on other new-media platforms, such as mobile phones and portable electronic devices, will have a chance of survival. Learning from the progressive downfall of print media in the States and Europe is a good way to stay ahead of new developments, experts suggest. No need to reinvent the wheel.
“If African media take heed of what’s happening up north, of what hasn’t worked and where the pitfalls are, they have a good opportunity to build something great,” says Arenstein.
Unsurprisingly, owners of print media hold a more moderate view. Print is far from being dead, insists the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). Contrary to conventional knowledge, newspapers remain a large and thriving industry worldwide, despite the rise of digital media: between 2005 and 2010, daily newspaper circulation in Africa rose a whopping 30%, according to WAN-IFRA statistics.
Another study on “The Future of Print Media”, conducted by US publication Capstone Report, states that the “death of print” remains a limited phenomenon in Africa… for now. In 2011, print circulation in many markets on the continent was stable or slightly up, in part because of rising literacy levels. Literacy—which increased by more than 12% in the past decade among African adults—usually leads to a boost in disposable income and this creates potential new newspaper audiences.
But despite relatively upbeat current data, experts warn the respite won’t last long. Even though African news markets have not fully matured yet, they will be faced with similar challenges to the States and Europe in the next 10 to 20 years, cautions the Capstone Report. Already, African audiences are moving online at a remarkably high speed. The common challenge for print media hence becomes trying to keep up.
The good news is that the predicted death of print does not equal the death of journalism or quality content. People will always want to read good content. What will change is where and how they want to read it. In Africa, mobile news delivery—and not website-based delivery like in the States and Europe—appears to be the medium of choice.
“Consumers in Africa leapfrog. They don’t follow the same path as Europe and the United States,” agrees Rowlands.
She believes the next few years will show huge change on the continent as prices of internet connectivity and technology come down, with smartphone penetration on a rapid increase. This means that people all over the continent have more access to digital news and social networking tools.
Platforms like smartphones and tablets are the future of publishing in Africa because they allow people to look beyond national borders and access the content they want, when they want.
“The appetite for online content is growing because people like to go online to find alternative content that they can’t necessarily buy at their local newsstand,” says Susan Hansford, business development manager at South African publisher Primedia Online.
“People love technology. It’s going to move really quickly. Some experts predict smartphone prices will drop to $20 within the next five years,” says Rowlands. In countries like Kenya or Nigeria, China-produced replicas of Apple iPhones are on sale for a mere $40—nearly half the price of an original iPhone.
Although $40 is a lot of money for an ordinary person living in Africa—in Kenya, for example, the average monthly income is about $60—increasing numbers of people save up for a mobile phone with advanced functionality, especially as prices for 3G and data bundles drop.
“Comparatively speaking, smartphones are not that expensive anymore. For someone living in a rural area, for instance, using a smartphone is often a more affordable and effective way to communicate with the outside world than the money and time it would cost to use public transport [to meet someone in person]. The argument that technology and connectivity are too expensive is a red herring,” says Arenstein.
In some parts of the continent, the digital revolution has already started. Kenya and Nigeria are fast becoming hotspots for digital media uptake and development. In both countries, mobile phones are increasingly used as the primary transactional device for news gathering, communication and banking. Mobiles are also used for other data sharing, like news and information about election monitoring, disease outbreaks, stock exchange fluctuations or weather forecasts for farmers.
Being at the forefront of the digital age has not happened by chance. Both the Kenyan and Nigerian governments have invested in digital development as part of their economic growth strategy by opening up competition in their telecoms and data sectors. This has forced mobile providers to lower the cost of their services, thus ensuring that larger parts of the population can access them. Both governments have also pumped resources into IT skills development so that their own population can develop new platforms, instead of having to hire foreign skills or relying on innovation buy-in from the developed world.
Private businesses in both countries have become keenly aware of the need to invest in digital content. Kenyan media houses, for example, formed a national digital journalism task force earlier this year aimed at developing a nationwide data-driven digital news model that will help the country’s media industry stay up to speed with new technologies.
The impact of what is happening in Kenya and Nigeria reaches beyond their borders. Kenya, for instance, is building a regional hub of technology and media innovation with its east African neighbors Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Nigeria is doing the same in West Africa, to a lesser degree, by cooperating with Ghana.
“Change is coming, and we must be prepared for it. Technology always wins, no matter how much you fight it. So instead of resisting it, the print media must devise a way of embracing it. When television came, we all thought it would sound the death knell of the radio, since it is capable of capturing sound and picture. But television has not displaced the radio. Instead the two have been complementary,” says Nigerian Broadcast Production Services CEO, Tolu Ajayi, at a recent panel discussion about the future of the country’s print media.
At a slightly slower pace, Egypt, Tunisia, Ghana, Senegal and Tanzania are developing into digital hubs. Angola, Mozambique and Zambia also experience massive digital growth, even if those countries are still at the infant stages of digitization.
“They are big markets that navigate away from print, even though their media mix is currently less focused on smartphones,” says Rowlands.
For now, people here consume news mainly via mid-range mobile phones, such as WAP-enabled phones with internet access or handsets with radio access. They also increasingly use text-messaging services to access news and information.
“From Zimbabwe in the south to Senegal in the north, using mobile for content exchange, for business or private use, is starting to have a massive impact on people’s lives,” says Arenstein.
Only countries with poor IT infrastructure, like those situated in central Africa that remain without direct access to undersea cables, such as Chad or the Democratic Republic of Congo, continue to lag behind.
Surprisingly, Africa’s most developed nation, South Africa, is not at the forefront of media digitization with most of the country’s newspapers lacking investment in new technology.
“I don’t see the same degree of creativity in South Africa [than in Kenya or Nigeria],” says Arenstein, who consults media houses all over the continent. “South Africa needs to catch a wake-up call. It is lulled into dismissive complacency, believing that their [well-established] print media market is too big to fail. Yet [being a developed economy], South Africa almost falls victim to the same market conditions as the US and Europe.”
Arenstein is convinced that Africa’s most southern nation is at a tipping point at which it needs to make a massive switch to mobile media—and it needs to do it fast if it doesn’t want to miss the bus. “Convergence is definitely happening, with or without South Africa,” he warns.
Latest statistics prove Arenstein right—sales of some of the country’s daily newspapers decreased by up to 17% in the past year, according to the South African Audit Bureau of Circulations. This is just the beginning, the bureau warns, as the newspaper industry will further lose to digital products in the next few years.
“We are seeing print publishers either struggle with circulation or circulation is flat,” says Hansford.
But not all is doom and gloom in the South African news market. There is one paper, which has not only kept up with the times but been at the forefront of convergence. The weekly Mail & Guardian (M&G) was the continent’s first news website when it launched its online edition 19 years ago. Today, the M&G is Africa’s first newspaper available on Kindle, apart from the fact that it can also be downloaded onto a rage of other mobile platforms—a tenth of the M&G’s subscriptions are currently for Kindle and iPad users.
“Our strategy is ‘digital first’,” says M&G online editor Chris Roper.
When the M&G launched a new version of its website a few months ago, Roper said its readers increasingly demanded and made use of its multimedia elements, partly because bandwidth constraints are being eased.
“We didn’t do it as a response to slowing circulation figures [of the print publication], but because we believe in innovation, in getting content to people. It’s the news that’s important. The platform is less important. We provide whatever the content demands,” he says.
Multimedia has become a vital component in the creation of news. And so have social media.
“Journalism is becoming more inclusive. The audience also contributes. Today’s readers want much more than simply being presented with content. They want to engage intelligently with the publication, be able to comment, contribute and influence the choice of content,” says Roper.
On the M&G website, readers can comment on articles, are invited to contribute content to a news story or join conversations and debates with journalists on Twitter. As its next move, the paper plans to run an ‘open newsroom’ by making its weekly news diary available online so that readers can make suggestions for what stories should be pursued. The M&G is one of the few South African newspapers whose print circulation numbers have increased.
For many print media owners, one of the biggest stumbling blocks of the digital revolution has been their struggle to come up with new ways to make a profit. Traditionally, print publications make most of their money from advertising—much less from subscriptions and individual sales. But the advertising-driven model is becoming outdated fast as more readers consume digital content. And a new, equally profitable way of attracting advertisement revenue still has to emerge. Initiatives to put up paywalls to protect content have only shown moderate success.
In the meantime, advertisers go where the money is: they are quickly moving from print to online. It’s a vicious cycle. As more readers consume content online, print circulations decrease, followed by losses in ad spending and a slump in profits.
There is an upside, though. Internet advertising is growing rapidly for many and beginning to offset some of the decline in print. The internet is an attractive medium for advertisers because it allows them to match ads more carefully to different audiences and measure accurately how well their money is spent. Websites can track the exact number of people who have visited the site, clicked on an ad and bought the product. Internet advertising is also seductive because online ad rates are far cheaper.
That’s another reason traditional media are losing out. The ad revenue loss experienced by print is nowhere near making up for the ad revenue gain made by online.
“At no time in the foreseeable future will digital advertising revenues replace those lost to print, making the search for new business models, including paid-for online access for news, a key goal for many newspapers,” says Riess.
Print owners will have to figure out many aspects of their business in a media world where only one thing is certain right now. No matter how long they manage to hold on to their old ways of doing business, sooner or later, they will have to say goodbye to print and hello to digitization.