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Journalism in a crisis, but not for lack of readers

Date: 21 June 2020 By: Anton van Zyl

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Journalism in South Africa, much like in the rest of the world, is facing a crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, leading to the sudden closure of more than a dozen of SA’s magazines and newspapers. The reason for the closure is not, however, because of a decline in readership.

Last week, the SA National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) released a report analysing the impact Covid-19 had (and still has) on journalism in the country. The report highlights the industry’s reliance on advertising as a main source of income. “The Covid-19 pandemic has effectively taken that pie away and what is left is a news industry desperately looking for new ways of sustaining itself while audience demands for timely, credible but free news surges,” is stated in the report’s executive summary.

The report states that not a single sector of the South African news landscape was spared the destruction of Covid-19. The plunge in advertising caused losses of between 40% and 100%. For those publishers hoping to tap into the growth in digital audiences, little relief could be found. Even though digital readership flourished in most markets, revenue possibilities are limited, with “Google and Facebook soaking up the lion’s share of online advertising revenue.”

The surge in online readership also showed up some very interesting patterns. Whereas the more structured and generally wealthier readers spent more time online, the rural and township readers seem to have consumed less news during the peak lockdown period.

When comparing the statistics of the websites for Zoutnet’s two newspapers, the Limpopo Mirror and the Zoutpansberger, the different user patterns are quite noticeable. The two newspapers serve different markets in the Vhembe region, with the Limpopo Mirror catering for a more rural readership. The Zoutpansberger, with its Afrikaans/English combination, is more focused on towns such as Louis Trichardt.

Fascinating figures

In January this year, the Zoutpansberger’s website, according to Google Analytics, recorded 14 657 users, with 28 952 pageviews. The 28-day active user count stood at 14 066. In February, the figures dropped inexplicably on all sites. This drop was quite possibly caused by countrywide Internet connectivity problems, mainly because of the damage to both the WACS and SAT-3/WASC submarine cable systems.

During March, the website traffic was still fairly subdued, but in April, the first month of the lockdown, it skyrocketed. The users increased to 31 580, with 50 997 pageviews and 30 547 28-day active users. In May, the number dropped slightly, but the website still recorded 30 672 users, with 46 110 pageviews. Most of the users (89,5%) used their cell phones to access the site during April. In May, 93,02% of the users logged in from South Africa, compared to 80,94% in March.

While the Zoutpansberger was gaining online readers, the Limpopo Mirror (at first) seemed to have lost them. In January, the Mirror’s site logged 143 746 users, who visited 274 104 pages. The 28-day active user count stood at 141 502. As was the case with the Zoutpansberger, the figures showed a dramatic drop in February, picking up slightly in March. In April, however, the Mirror’s online readership took a plunge, with only 45 736 users visiting 70 761 pages. The stats also showed that the traffic started moving from 63,46% South African visitors in January to 83,94% SA visits in April.

In May, when restrictions on movement were partly lifted, the traffic on the Mirror’s website started going up again. In May, 77 857 users visited the site, opening up 175 908 pages. The percentage of SA users increased to 88,64%, with 87,19% accessing the site via mobile devices.

Check the figures

When statistics “break a pattern”, checking these against other indicators is often the best course of action. Zoutnet uses two Facebook pages, one for each newspaper, to drive traffic to the websites. The Facebook analysis makes for interesting reading and echoes the patterns noticeable in the website stats.

On the Zoutpansberger’s Facebook page, the followers increased from 4 718 in January to 4 944 in May. The 28-day total reach is an important figure, because this reflects the number of Facebook users who viewed the posts. The 28-day total impression is also significant, because this figure reflects the number of posts during the period that was displayed to users. For the Zoutpansberger, the impressions went from 8 301 in January, to 32 346 in April, before dropping to 11 885 in May. Total impressions went from 78 586 in January to 177 703 in April and 129 065 in May.

The Limpopo Mirror’s figures were once again quite fascinating. Page followers climbed steadily from 47 828 in January to 50 157 in May. The 28-day reach in January was an incredible 857 121 but dropped to 207 132 in April, before increasing to 543 499 in May. Total impressions started at 2,4 million in January, dropped to 1,2 million in April and recovered again to 1,88 million in May.

Another noticeable trend was the Facebook interactions. In May, the Mirror’s Facebook page had six posts that each recorded a reach of more than 100 000. A story posted on 9 May, entitled “Another state-of-the-art mall for Vhembe”, reached 228 445 users, with 1 774 interactions (i.e. comments, likes or shares).

The Zoutpansberger’s busiest month on Facebook thus far was April. The posts that attracted the most attention were the weekly summaries of news. On 23 April, the weekly highlight post reached 27 008 Facebook users, with 1 225 interactions.

Why the difference?

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a worldwide shift in the way news is consumed. “…the lockdown and confinement of many South Africans to their homes with the main link to the world outside being a computer screen has, as expected, boosted online news,” says the SANEF report.

The statistics used in the SANEF report, however, rely heavily on the figures for March. The report recognises that certain news websites saw a downward trend in traffic in April, the first month of the complete lockdown. Websites such as Daily Maverick, on the other hand, saw a 29% increase in traffic.

One of the explanations for the downward trend in some markets may be the high cost of data in South Africa. Newspapers such as the Limpopo Mirror serve a market based in rural areas, where the cost of data is a limiting factor. Whereas the more affluent readers in the cities and towns could retreat to their homes with good Internet connectivity, this is not the case in most of the Vhembe region. Using 3G connectivity to access news websites is expensive, something that clearly showed in the statistics.

SANEF’s report paints a gloomy picture of the future for journalism, with more pressure on dwindling advertising revenue options. Online readership is growing massively, with an increasing appetite for quality and well-researched news. The Covid-19 pandemic also showed that big parts of South Africa do not have easy access to online media, mostly because of the high cost of data and the necessity to use technology such as smartphones or computers. Many still rely on traditional media, such as community newspapers and radio.




Anton van Zyl

Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.



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