Content must go beyond distribution

Around the massive double storey Goss press a team of printers grappled with paper tension and inking. Their job was to ensure that the colours were correct and all the pictures and adverts were in register, rejecting early ‘spoiled copies’. All the time the entire building throbbed with the deep, almost primal rhythm of the presses that you could literally feel pulsing through your body.

Printing press flickr creative commons marion dross ()

Above: Printing press – Flickr, creative commons, Marion Dross

Today in South Africa two large conglomerates print most of the titles. The presses are still massive but they are now relatively quiet, computer-controlled beasts operated by a very small team keeping an eye on proceedings from inside a glass eyrie raised above the floor.

What has also changed is the massive print runs of years past. Plummeting sales and a new generation that complains about getting ink on their hands and prefers to consume news online are taking their toll.  

Magazines have also suffered in this digital age, with sales a far cry from the heady heights of just a decade ago, as an analysis by the media site reveals. Long-established titles have disappeared altogether in the path of the digital tsunami while others have suffered circulation drops of 50 and 60 per cent. To be fair, new titles have been born – but none reach great heights of the days when print reigned supreme.

Many now have vibrant online presences and also offer digital editions with growing circulations that are read on tablets and other smart devices. But as has happened in the rest of the world, online and digital advertising is not yet replacing the falling print revenues, leading to swinging cuts in overheads. 

Too often the cuts come at the cost of excellent content and the people who produce it, at a time when quality content is what differentiates them from the opposition and has never been more important. 

South African Lisa McLeod, the woman responsible for spearheading the FT’s successful digital transition and integration, has been headhunted by Media24, South Africa’s biggest publisher. Her task? To devise and implement a single digital publishing strategy, free and paid, across news, magazines and the different divisions. At the core of her thinking is that staff is the company’s single most important asset. 

They’re expensive yes, but what are you going to sell if they aren’t creating content for you, she asks? Content has to go beyond distribution, be it print or digital, and be used as a way of creating personal relationships with readers via events, social media and interactive communities. McLeod believes diversification is key, and this is something the legacy media house has started to embrace.  

Media24 has reported some success in bundling its magazine titles, launching Kaboedel/The Bundle, which offers PDF replicas of 14 Afrikaans titles and 22 English titles at a fixed monthly subscription. The deal has had the added effect of a pick up on titles subscribers might not otherwise have read. Then they devised Dailyfix, a website combining content of three of their top women’s interest magazines – Fairlady, Home and Ideas – on one online platform. Media24 also moved all its travel magazines into one portal, and did the same with its three parenting brands. The effect of this strategy has been to increase engagement with the brands because the more content that is available, the more readers engage with it, and extend their interest to associated brands. 

Caxton Magazines, which belongs to another of South Africa’s big four media houses, Caxton Printers and Publishers, recently launched Caxton TV. The strategy, developed by the company’s in-house insights team, is built on the premise that magazines are an emotional buy, and that by extending this via an television channel, they could take content further not only on the small screen, but on even smaller screens such as website and mobile. It piloted the strategy with Bona magazine and sponsored by Unilever, one of the world’s largest advertisers. As one of their team said, they are creating “bespoke content for television and online using our brands to speak about your brands”.

Sarie magazine, one of South Africa’s top selling women’s magazines, pioneered an ecommerce platform that sold fashion off the pages of the magazine. It was so successful that other title in the stable joined in, leading to the launch of spree. Much of its appeal is that the titles in which the clothes appear are credible and have been given the magazines’ “stamp of approval” and have been chosen “with the consumer in mind”, according to award-winning editor, Michele van Breda. 

Newspapers, too, are looking at ways of increasing their reach and filling up their coffers via brand extensions and events in much the same way magazines have done. Times Media Group, which owns the South African Sunday Times and premier business titles Business Day and the Financial Mail, among others, recently bought the Future Group, a media company that ‘owns’ over 20 successful events, from roundtables and forums to gala dinners, conferences and awards ceremonies. The reasoning behind the deal was that it would allow TMG to leverage opportunities for its various titles, and extend its range of offerings to subscribers. 

There is a growing public perception that printed media is dying and I am constantly asked for my prediction of how long newspapers (and, to a lesser extent, magazines) will survive.

But, as I tell the doomsayers, they are asking the wrong question. Rather, I tell them, ask how long journalism will survive.

Because even though there are algorithms that can now write stories they will never replace a good journalist on the ground reporting the news as it happens, as well as analysing and giving it context.

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