Opinionista Anton Harber 3 November 2017

The Times are passing as 10-year-old paper plans closure

The decline of traditional newsrooms continues, with The Times daily newspaper set to soon print for the last time.

The closure of a newspaper always brings a wave of nostalgia about ink on fingers, the decline of in-depth reporting and the role newspapers have played in the fabric of a country and the daily lives of individuals. Over-40s talk about how much the newspaper was a part of their lives, and how the online product is just not “a nation talking to itself”, as Arthur Miller said of great newspapers. The under-40s look up from their smart phones briefly to roll their eyes and mouth something like, “Get over it”.

So it is today with the announcement of the planned closure of the 10-year-old The Times daily newspaper in favour of a “digital-only daily premium product”. Andy Gill, managing director of media in the Tiso Blackstar Group (formerly Times Media) said that “despite several changes which have been introduced to the business model over the past few years, the print product has remained unprofitable”.

The company has begun a consultation process with staff about restructuring and “possible retrenchments”. That is management talk for we are closing, but the law requires us to go through a long and torturous process to pretend we can try and save things. Deadline for this is the end of January 2018, but, given the inevitability of the outcome, it is likely to be one of those rare occasions when a newspaper beats a deadline.

The Times was built on an odd and unworkable business model, the brainchild of former publisher and editor Mike Robertson. It was initially given out free to Sunday Times subscribers and only later did they sell separate subscriptions and put it into in retail outlets. This was an expensive cross-subsidisation and the paper – though a fresh and lively addition to the morning market – never sold enough advertising to stand on its own feet. Robertson controversially hid most of the cost by mixing it in with the Sunday Times.

When Robertson left and later Tiso Blackstar took control under the tough Andrew Bonamour, they began to unravel the costs and try to bring them down, through measures such as limiting the circulation footprint. They went through two or three cost-cuttings, until with the latest one it became clear that this was not going to stop the bleeding, according to insiders close to the decision-making.

While this week’s announcement will not come as a great surprise, it will be most painful for the old newspaper hands who don’t find a place in the digital product. Managers are assuring staff that they won’t be cutting editorial jobs wholesale, because content-providers will be needed for the digital edition, but there will be blood on the floor and editorial skill and experience will be lost.

Will other newspapers be close behind? Certainly, the signs of decline are more dramatic every year. The latest circulation figures show daily newspapers down 11,2% in a year, weeklies 7% and weekends 12%. Magazines were down 13%. Previously, there were always some exceptions – such as weekly and isiZulu newspapers – but this year the shrinkage has been across-the-board.

Media24 CEO Esmare Weidemann says it is not a matter of whether newspapers will close in favour of their online equivalents, but when. “We don’t know whether it will be five or 10 years,” she told me, “but we have to be ready”.

Tiso Blackstar still has the Sunday Times, a cash-cow despite its declining circulation. And it has dominance now of the business sector, with Business Day, Financial Mail and BusinessLive.com. But, like all these groups, they are struggling with declining traditional revenue and slow online revenue.

Sekunjalo Independent Newspapers under Iqbal Surve has seen some of the most dramatic circulation losses and some of the most profitable parts of the business, such as the printing and community media arms, stripped out into his personal ownership. The strategy there seems to be one of harvesting short-term profits rather than planning long-term survival.

All of these media groups are struggling to make their online operations work as their traditional products decline. While they have had some success with building audience online, this has not been matched with the revenues to sustain it (with the exception of Afrikaans media, one of the few sectors where the audience has been prepared to subscribe to an online news service).

In Joburg, you will still have a choice of eight daily newspapers, including seven in English (or near-English). The most precarious one on the list is probably New Age, which former government spokesperson Mzwanele Manyi took over recently from the Gupta family. Their business model is based on swopping favourable government coverage for state advertising – a precarious one in these volatile times, but one that allows them to ignore their dismal circulation.

Will all of this impact on the investigative journalism which has been at the heart of the state capture story in recent weeks. Will these cuts means fewer resources for those who have had to spend weeks trawling through the GuptaLeaks emails?

The Sunday Times is adamant that they still see this work – though risky and expensive – as essential to keeping their audience. Indeed, their circulation jumped around 40,000 at the height of the GuptaLeaks story, and they kept about 10% of that when it died down.

Much of this work has shifted from newspapers to independent and or online operations (like amaBhungane and Daily Maverick), and from commercial operations to donor-funded non-profits. Dedicated individuals keep it going.

But we have to be concerned that the decline of traditional newsrooms opens up more space for fake news. With newspapers closing, online operations struggling and newsrooms squeezed everywhere, there are fewer resources to do the traditional selecting and verifying and more capacity for fake news to spread unchecked through social media.

It won’t be easy to just “get over it”. DM

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