media update’s David Jenkin looks at the health of the local community press.

The indispensable local paper

“Vital to democracy” – that’s how Guardian journalist Sam Meadows describes local newspapers. He explains that the connection with their communities simply cannot be reproduced by other media sources.

“Without a committed local newspaper, criminals would go through the court system without being identified, councils would be able to make decisions on cuts without outside scrutiny and people wouldn’t be able to keep up-to-date with events in their communities,” he writes.

National group editor of Caxton Local Newspapers, Irma Green, explains that hyper-local content creates a sense of belonging in readers which fosters a loyal readership.

“Local newspapers cover serious issues that affect the community which could include poor service delivery, massive potholes in the towns or exposing bogus businessmen who operate in a distribution area,” she says. “But, they take an equal interest in school news, community, social, and sport events.”

She likens community papers to a ‘village noticeboard’, where readers can expect to see issues that affect them getting tackled. “Editors and staff are encouraged to be active citizens in their areas and local newspapers are often seen as the driving force behind fund-raisers and other social initiatives,” she adds.

What the numbers say – ABC Audit results

Figures recently presented in the Audit Bureau of Circulations Report 86.0 for the fourth quarter of 2016 paint a sombre picture of South Africa’s media landscape.

For print titles, overall, press publications dropped in circulation by 4.6% over the prior year, while magazines showed similar numbers. Daily newspapers showed a 12.6% decline over 2015, with a 6.4% decline for weekly papers and a 11.6% decline for weekend papers.

Local papers showed some of the biggest declines on individual titles, as much as 30%, with an overall decline of 7.1% over 2015.

Free community publications, however, showed some positivity. Although suffering an overall decline from 2015 of 11.6%, numerous individual titles were able to buck the global trend and achieve significant growth.

Overall, free publications classified as ‘Residential Individual’ (comprising roughly 70% of free newspapers) showed a slight increase over the third quarter. Some of the big movers included PE Express, which surged 13.2% over the third quarter, and Dumelang News which increased circulation by 7.6% over the same period. Maritzburg Echo, meanwhile, showed a massive 45% increase over the previous year.

Cause for optimism

Green expresses excitement about rapid growth in emerging markets. “Communities in township areas have welcomed a ‘voice’ of their own and the publications have gained a lot of popularity in recent months,” she says.

She goes on to say that in the commercial space, readers use their local paper for price benchmarking to ensure that local traders are competitive. Advertising space remains in high demand with large clients booking the front section a year in advance.

She adds, “A major part of the success is that we focus on reaching high volumes of people in hyper-local areas. This gives advertisers huge value in reaching these consumers in concentrated footprints.”

“Do we face challenges? Yes, like any other media company, Caxton has embraced what the digital landscape provides and has invested greatly in this area,” she says. In line with this, she explains, Caxton has implemented a strategy where print and digital can remain relevant through a symbiotic relationship rather than one replacing the other.

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Interested in the digital disruption of journalism? Read more in our article Dion Chang: The media industry’s waves of disruption .