Print media’s battle for survival in COVID-19

COVID-19 lockdown regulations have knocked traditional media such as print newspapers dependent on the circulation among readers.

South Africa went into a tight lockdown at the end of March, drastically limiting the movement of people. Arena Holdings MD Andy Gill said April was a “shocker” for the company.

“If I look at the numbers for April and the performance for April... I’ve been in this business for 20 years and it’s never been as bad as that,” Gill said, panelling CNBC Africa’s Business Tomorrow show with Independent Media COO Takudzwa Hove and frayintermedia CEO Paula Fray on June 9.

“Newspaper readership has been devastated by the decrease in the movement of people,” said the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) COVID -19 impact on journalism report. At the same time, media houses have reported dramatic increases in online readership.

SANEF’s COVID-19 report said local newspapers, including African newspapers, may eventually face a “media extinction event” with an impact far more reaching than that of the 2008 global recession. It added that the drop in advertising revenue in news media has had a disastrous effect on the industry.

“One of the challenges is not so much whether there is still life left in print which is still a huge driver in advertising but whether we can find the right models for (online) monetisation,” Fray said.

Hove said a key focus would be looking at sustainable revenue lines.

“Some of the revenue that was in the market has disappeared indefinitely. It requires us to start streamlining our business going forward and we’re definitely going to have to rethink our entire way of doing business,” he said.

While print media is in seemingly dire straits, Hove said its condition does not signify its imminent death.

The reality is “quite a large percentage” of the South African population cannot afford to buy mobile devices to access online news, Hove said.

“Print still is a source of information for a lot of people,” he said.

South Africa’s internet penetration stood at 62% in January with the number of mobile connections equivalent to 176% of the population, according to We Are Social.

While Hove said the market for print products was still available, he added that media needs to adapt to the current situation.

“If we’re not dynamic or agile enough in the next couple of months, quite a few media houses are not going to survive until beyond the end of this year,” he said.

As South Africa has moved into level three of the national lockdown, restrictions on businesses have loosened.

“We are already seeing bounceback in readership. As retail opened up, product sales have improved,” Gill said.

Fray said during the COVID-19 lockdown, new habits are being formed and it is unlikely that people will go back to their “old consumption patterns” post-COVID-19.

Watch the Business Tomorrow virtual discussion on the Media's Battle for Survival Amid COVID-19 and Lockdowns here.

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