Media, South Africa

The shootout: City Press vs. Sunday Times

The shootout: City Press vs. Sunday Times

The Sunday Times is getting fat and dominates the Sunday print market, but that doesn’t mean it can become complacent. Media24 knows a thing or two about the online space, and  it has the resources to give Avusa a wake-up call. By MANDY DE WAAL.

If you picked up the Sunday Times recently, you’d probably need both hands to lift up the mother of all papers. Under the covers is a growing forest or two of inserts. Brands like Edgars, CNA, CTM, Pick n Pay, Checkers, Stuttafords, Telkom and Woolworths are investing good advertising spend in Avusa’s weekly.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) says 27 newspapers with a combined circulation of 2,365 million compete for the Sunday market, but Sunday Times takes the print lead with copy sales of some 262,992. Moreover, it is also the only top title to show year-on-year growth.

Rank Publication Name Copy Sales >50% – 2011 % Change on Prior Year
1 Sunday Times 262,992 6.03%
2 Sunday Sun 212,102 -6.41%
3 Rapport 201,983 -9.22%
4 City Press 146,036 -3.38%
5 Sunday World 121,943 -7.88%

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Then there’s the matter of clout. News has become so commoditised that dominating influence means breaking headlines, owning the media agenda, and investing in quality journalism to sort the also-rans from the big guns. One of many lenses for tracking who has local influence is to determine how often a newspaper is quoted by its media peers. Recent Media Tenor research indicates the Sunday Times is the most quoted traditional medium in South Africa, this for the sixth time in a row.

The interesting departure for the usual order is that City Press moved up a notch, taking second position from Mail & Guardian, which has dropped to being the third most quoted news source in the country. Breaking big, attention-grabbing stories and investigative journalism is where value lies, and the three weeklies have the most powerful investigative teams in the country.

The Sunday Times has Mzilikazi Wa Africa and Stephan Hofstätter, while City Press brought Adriaan Basson on board as assistant editor. Naspers has also invested in creating a heavyweight investigative team at Media 24 Investigations, run by Andrew Trench, which includes author and former Vrye Weekblad co-founder, Jacques Pauw.

After setting up as a non-profit, public interest initiative that feeds into Mail & Guardian, Amabhugane (led by Stefaans Brummer and Sam Sole) received the financial support it needed to grow and mentor emerging journalism talent.

Investigative journalism is a key differentiator for top newspapers. Investment in this type of reporting not only supports democracy, but builds circulation and online eyeballs. It also yields big dividends through word of mouth and through getting other media to talk about your news brand.

For now, the Sunday market is still owned by the Sunday Times despite Avusa’s shareholder dramas and the papers ongoing “print and be damned” journalistic ethos, which saw editor-in-chief Mondli Makhanya get a prickly reception at February’s Press Commission hearings.

More recently, Press Ombud Joe Thloloe lashed out at Avusa’s daily The Times for ignoring complaints received from the Press Council. Thloloe said that even after meeting with Makhanya and Phylicia Oppelt, The Times’ editor “The Times continued to discredit the system”. The Ombud only got action from Avusa after “naming-and-shaming the newspaper among its peers at an SA National Editors’ Forum council meeting.”.

Despite attacks against its reputation and accusations of a cavalier attitude towards journalism, the  “publish and be damned” attitude isn’t harming the Sunday Times’ circulation. Still, the media mega-brand’s Achilles heel could prove to be online.

“At Avusa, the economies of a unified strategy override the necessities of the differentiated strategy,” says Arthur Goldstuck, of World Wide Worx. “The publication that suffers the most is the Sunday Times because their online brand is a subsidiary to the TimesLIVE brand. Sunday Times doesn’t have an online identity, nor does it actively promote powerful voices like Ray Hartley (Sunday Times editor) and Mondli Makhanya (Avusa Editor-in-Chief), whose brands and voices are completely subdued by the TimesLIVE strategy,” he says.

Avusa’s online strategy man is Elan Lohmann, who gave South Africa Zappon about a year ago. (The group buying site folded about ten months later with Lohmann citing “bad tech”.  Zappon’s dev was outsourced to India for R30,000 but the “investment” appeared to yield nothing more than technical headaches, bugs and patches.)

Lohmann says readers of the Sunday Times can look out for a major shift in the paper’s digital strategy soon. To date, the Sunday Times has been available for free on the TimesLIVE site, but that looks set to change.

“The reality is that advertisers in South Africa in the digital space have not come to the party; ad agencies and clients are still behind the curve. At the end of the day an advertising model is not a good model in the online space. I do believe that for a product like the Sunday Times, which is a good product and which costs a lot of money to produce and distribute, people should be paying money to use it,” Lohmann says.

“Our view is very simple. With anything that is commoditised or which you can get somewhere else for free, you are wasting your time. We would never charge for breaking news because that is commoditised. But a packaged product like the Sunday Times, which has value, it doesn’t make sense to be giving it away online for free all the time. It is my belief that people should be paying for that content,” says Lohmann.

In 2010 Lohmann erected “paywalls” at The Herald and The Daily Dispatch – which coincided with the end of the Eastern Cape newspapers’ much-awarded online journalism team and was viewed as a big mistake by media pundits.

The offering that replaced the vibrant Dispatch site was an e-paper tabloid, which at best is clumsy to manipulate and read. The tech used by Dispatch and The Herald is the same technology used by the likes of the Edmonton Journal of Canada, the Belorusskaya Voyennaya Gazeta of Belarus and Siglo Veintiuno of Guatemala.

Lohmann is currently working with Business Day to erect a paywall for the business daily, which will be called Business Day LIVE, continuing the ‘LIVE’ media brand theme. Something is brewing related to charging for content at the Sunday Times as well, but Lohmann wouldn’t be pressed on the details.

“You can say it is my belief that people should be paying for that content,” Lohmann tells Daily Maverick, adding that Avusa will be charging for “that which has value and can’t be gotten elsewhere. We will remain 99% remain free to air, but value will be charged for. People are more prepared to pay and will soon see us rolling quite a few new things out to market.”

Avusa has taken a “wait and see” approach to apps, but Lohmann says this is part of a planned strategy. “We’ve decided not to take a first-to-market approach with an ‘unadvanced’ product set. We’ve decided to rather wait and come to market with value rather than being first. It is not a case that we’re napping, we’ve just taken a different approach,” he says.

Media24 is also looking at the concept of charging for content, but hasn’t decided on strategy yet. At City Press, which has a strong digital focus, deputy editor Adriaan Basson says discussions on monetising content are underway, but decisions have yet to be taken.

“We fully embrace the fact that we have to be a product over platforms, and we no longer think of ourselves as a print product,” says Basson. “At the moment all our products are free. Monetisation is a decision the company still has to make, and I don’t think that consensus has been reached, not only at Media24, but from an industry perspective. Apps are the one area to consider charging. If we ever do start to talk pay walls, apps will be the first and best avenue for paywalls. I think it is too late now to charge for web: that ship has sailed,” says Basson.

Goldstuck says former Mail & Guardian editor, Ferial Haffajee, has brought big changes to City Press. “She has a strong sensibility of where her audience is at, and is one of the journalistic stars of Twitter,” says Goldstuck alluding to City Press’ strong social media presence.

“I think it is a massive asset to have reporters like Mandy Rossouw and Carien du Plessis on board at City Press, because they have such established Twitter profiles,” says Basson. “We also have on our entertainment pages… Mokgadi Seabi [who] has a massive amount of Twitter followers [more than 5,000]. She tweets about all the celebs gossip and people love it,” says Basson, who adds that younger reporters are being encouraged to grow their social media brands and status.

Basson says the idea is to build both City Press and the journalists’ brands to push the readership towards digital news product, but also to create a brand desire for the Sunday paper. “If people want to know anything what’s going on in the ANC they’ll follow Carien [du Plessis] on Twitter, and hopefully buy the product on Sunday to find out what Carien has written. We use the website for daily reports, Twitter as an immediate reporting tool, and the Sunday edition gives premium insight into news matters [and] exclusive news breaks,” says Basson.

“We don’t have any strategy to push personalities,” says Elan Lohmann, group MD of digital for Avusa. “People adopt those platforms and decide what to do there. Ray [Hartley] was very active for a while, but I don’t think he’s that active anymore.” Hartley stopped tweeting in August 2011 after a series of online skirmishes, the last related to a Sunday Times hunt for a Facebook racist, which turned out to be a story that The Times had originally published years earlier, when Hartley was editor of the daily.

TimesLIVE has fallen in the trap of using breaking news to build traffic online. However, this has led to the site publishing erroneous Sapa copy on more than one occasion. Who can forget the TimesLIVE headlines about Malema stepping down as ANCYL president? The story ran halfway around the world before the online news site’s editorial staff picked up on the problem – a problem a simple phone call or shout across the newsroom could have fixed before publishing.

The acid test for the Sunday Times and City Press online should be the numbers, but with Avusa lumping everything, including Sapa copy, together at it’s impossible to make any kind of meaningful direct comparison between the two English Sunday news brands:

Effective Measure data across sites measuring local/South African traffic only.

Website Name Uniques Pg Views Uniques Pg Views Uniques Pg Views Uniques Pg Views Uniques Pg Views Uniques Pg Views
Monthly Period Aug-11 Sep-11 Oct-11   Nov-11    Dec-11    Jan-12* 556 816 6 151 322 488 204 5 249 983 523 810 5 297 931 510 732 5 534 853 415 972 3 970 420 504 972 4 697 356 122 579 1 009 260 88 995 811 796 95 989 847 696 108 586 924 643 91 846 726 520 105 778 895 278 113 194 1 061 136 99 637 912 517 116 487 1 267 831 110 391 1 142 582 91 966 835 068 124 038 1 274 847

*(do not have specifically for Sunday times) [Uniques = Unique Browsers; Pg Views = Page Views].

TimesLIVE has seen a drop-off in page views and unique browsers over the past six months, and Rapport obviously shows good growth, because it’s an Afrikaans read that offers massive local niche relevance. City Press figures seem stable, but it will be interesting to watch if they grow given the paper’s promotion of  “celebrity” journalists in the social media space.

From their side, Media24 did make a fair number of mistakes in print, but there’s one area the media giant has learned expensive lessons which now see it laughing all the way to the bank, and that’s in the converged media space.

Media24 is exceedingly smart in digital business and has converted television into a lucrative cash cow. The internet business that Koos Bekker built now rivals Google in some territories, which could deliver leverage and shared learning that may benefit City Press. The fact that the company has a massive cheque book and isn’t scared to use it, and that City Press is Bekker’s darling media brand, doesn’t hurt either.

The Sunday Times can appear arrogant about its dominant position at times, but it may very well change if it became complacent to boot. Media24 is gunning to own the Sunday media market, and by the looks of it they’ve got the will and resources to do this.

Media24 have already waved the chequebook at the Sunday Times’ prime assets – its investigative team of Wa Afrika, Hofstatter and Rob Rose. MediaOnline reports that the team had already signed contracts with Media24 when they were convinced by Ray Hartley to stay. It will only be a matter of time before Media24 takes out its chequebook again.

As the power and profitability of print wanes and the main fighting field moves to the space house Bekker controls, the strategic mistakes and tactical mishaps over the last few decades may well come back to haunt Avusa’s leadership and its iconic brand. Media24 will make sure they do. DM

Avusa’s response:

In the Daily Maverick report (The shootout:City Press vs Sunday Times) Mandy de Waal has done a good job in pointing out how Avusa’s Sunday Times dominates the Sunday print market.
However, the gap in sales between the Sunday Times and the rest of the Sunday papers is wider than quoted by Ms De Waal. The figures she quoted – 262,992 and 146,036 for Sunday Times and City Press respectively refer only to the single copy sales of the papers (i.e. sales through retailers or street vendors). The report left off  a key component of our growing circulation – our loyal subscribers.
In the case of Sunday Times, we have 138,084 subscribers – which takes total core circulation – excluding any free copies or bulk sales,  to 401,076.  City Press can afford to not show subscribers as their subscription base remains low at 2,844 copies – bringing their core circulation to only 148,880.
The gap between the circulation of the City Press and Sunday Times is thus significantly large. In fact, the Sunday Times sells more copies of the paper than the combined sales of both City Press and Rapport. – Lynette Benjamin, Market Research Manager, Avusa Media.

Read more:

  • Fast failure of Scoop! a bit of déjà vu for Media24 in Business Day.
  • Cele a “scapegoat” for Sunday Times on News24.
  • Sunday Times is most quoted medium on News24.
  • Where to for Avusa in an ever-tougher media world? by Gill Moodie on BizCommunity.
  • Survival strategies for newspapers at The Media Online.

Photo: The Sunday Times versus City Press.

Editor’s note: Mandy de Waal has done occasional freelance work for City Press.


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