On the face of it, it would seem that traditional print media firms face a looming death. When publishing icons like Newsweek, US News &World Report, Seattle P-I, Christian Science Monitor and others fold, one cannot help but wonder if this is what awaits the remaining publishing houses. It is a fascinating area of study and there is actually a website that chronicles the death of newspapers. Newspaperdeathwatch.com is an interesting read.
The Internet has been described time and again as a disruptive technology. There are few industries that have felt the impact of this more than the print media. In the pre-Internet days, print publications were the dominant providers of news, commentary and informational content. They paid their bills and put money in their shareholders pockets by running advertisements. Following the widespread use of the Internet, media houses were attacked on both fronts. Independent blogs and websites began providing free news and content while online advertising companies wrestled away a huge chunk of ad revenue. Companies like Google have grown and thrived at the expense of traditional print media firms.
African print media firms are particularly vulnerable to this disruption due to a number of factors.
Internet usage in Africa is growing at a phenomenal pace. Smartphones prices are now affordable to millions of low to middle-income earners. The cost of data has also fallen drastically in recent years due to the completion and commissioning of several undersea fiber cables on both the Indian Ocean and Atlantic coast lines. These have allowed millions to access cheap digitized news content.
According to UN figures, Africa has the highest youth population in the world. There are currently more than 200 million people aged between 15 and 24 years. This represents 20% of the entire population of Africa. When you stretch the upper limit to 35 years, the percentage jumps to over 60%. These are people who have grown up or were born during the Internet revolution. Given the option of reading a newspaper or getting their news on a smartphone, most prefer the latter. As a case in point, an economic survey in Kenya found that most people prefer to read newspapers online. It was found that English language newspapers had dropped in circulation by 6.5 million copies annually.
So, how viable are African print media businesses going forward. Well, all hope is not lost for print media. African media houses should take a cue from what some of the leading media houses in US and Europe are doing.
One strategy being employed is taking the business online and charging a subscription fee to access premium content. A number of well-established news brands, such as the New York Times, are already doing this with some measure of success. There is no question that there is a viable commercial model that runs only online. Sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed should have silenced the naysayers by now.
Another strategy is to charge subscription fees similar to what popular magazines like Reader's Digest have always done. The magazine still has a global circulation of over 10 million making it the largest paid circulation publication globally. Subscriptions reduce the reliance on advertising revenue. Also, there is still a market for long-form journalism as opposed to the short-form types, tweets and posts typical of the Internet.
These are just some of the ways that publishers can make this business work. African media houses need not die; embracing new ideas can inject a fresh lease of life into many struggling publications.