Are websites killing newspaper circulations?

Matthew Buckland, Net Savvy

Websites are often singled out as one of the main culprits for falling print circulations. Simply put, the argument is why would readers bother to buy a newspaper if they can get the same publication for free over the net?

It’s not a new debate, but yet it persists. It’s the question at the back of every newspaper editor’s mind when faced with declining numbers. Print circulations around the world are showing signs of trouble — showing either a decline or not delivering the kind of growth expected.

A World Association of Newspapers survey found last year that newspaper circulation worldwide fell 0,35% in 2002, the first decline in five years. Yet the same survey, which covered 70 countries from both the developed and the developing world, also reported that internet consumption and advertising levels were “much stronger than anticipated“. The survey also found that 79% of newspapers have their own websites, compared with around 52% in 1998.

The reason for the decline, concluded the survey, is a downturn in the global economy. But many are asking if the drop has anything to do with the internet? No significant research has been conducted into this phenomenon in South Africa, so everyone has been guessing. People are still guessing.

One would guess that weekend papers are better off than weekday dailies, which compete with website publications more directly. Weekdays, when people access the net from work, are big traffic days for online publications. Also, most online news publications tend to focus on daily, breaking news.

On weekends, on the other hand, internet readerships drop significantly. It would appear that papers published on the weekend face much less competition from online publications.

After a cursory glance of South Africa’s newspaper landscape, is it any co-incidence that the country’s biggest selling newspaper[s?] comes out on a Sunday — a low internet readership day? Also, is it any co-incidence that two of the largest circulating daily papers in South Africa, The Citizen and Sowetan in fact don’t have websites? [ CHECK CIRCULATIONS, CHECK DEMOGRAPHICS]

Moreover, publications with a younger demographic are more likely to feel any pinch from online publications. After researching the issue, Time magazine found that its younger readers were more inclined to read online and didn’t bother to subscribe anymore. Time’s answer to this problem was to tie its website access to the print publication’s subscription.

So what’s to be done? The answers are not clear in the absence of any major research.

The one thing that is clear is that online publications are here to stay. Among other things, websites generate enormous local and international prestige and readership numbers for publishing companies. Trends indicate they can be a strong source of profit for publishing companies, given various new pay-for-content schemes being mooted and the recovering online advertising industry.

Many argue that, in fact, websites increase readerships of their newspapers by generating online subscriptions and by acting as a promotional vehicle, ensuring the reader consumes the publication’s brand on multiple platforms.

Professor Guy Berger, Head of Journalism at Rhodes University, says some companies should take a holistic perspective and realise that “two horses are better than one”. It is a matter of co-ordinating the two products so the complement each other and don’t compete with each other. The question, says Berger, is building relationships with audiences using both platforms, print and online, to deepen, extend the range of content.

In theory there is nothing wrong with readers migrating to a company’s online publication, but as long as the company can still derive revenue from the reader in the online environment. The reason for all the fuss, of course, is that websites have been in a bad revenue patch. So readers could be migrating to a platform that is not generating cash, resulting in an overall loss for the company.

The trick of course is that online publications need to become profitable, then the debate falls away to some extent.

But it’s also not a question of either/or. A reader should want to read an online publication to get something different from the print publication, and it should be clear to the reader that there’s a different value proposition behind two different experiences.

This means having unique, web-exclusive content in ways that exploits the defining features of the internet medium – interactivity, searchability and dynamism. If a website is merely a copy of its print publication, then what’s the point of buying the newspaper in the first place?

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