Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Should South African newspapers be grateful to Telkom?

The other morning on 702 I heard the news that the parent company of the Independent Newspaper Group is deep in the dwang, scrambling for funding to keep going in the wake of crashing advertising revenues. The same report noted that Independent’s newspapers in South Africa are still very profitable.

So South African newspapers seem to be bucking a global trend, where newspapers around the world are in serious trouble as circulation declines and advertising revenues go into freefall. In fact, spending in the supermarkets category is significantly up according on the latest Nielsen figures I have seen, and newspapers are one of the major beneficiaries of this recession-fuelled competition. (On the other side of the coin, I keep hearing of retrenchments and closures of publications, especially magazines — the latter no surprise in an overtraded market that has been found out by a slowdown in the economy.)

Oddly enough, the newspaper proprietors and the people they employ probably have Telkom to thank for this. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the words “fifteen percent” whenever I try to motivate for a greater role for online in a communication strategy. Clients are, of course, referring to the fact that, according to the statistics that are cited most regularly, 15% of the South African population access the internet on a regular basis. Never mind that, in many cases, this is the fifteen percent of the population that marketers wish to target for their products and services, online is still far down the food chain when placed up against more traditional above-the-line media. As a result, the bulk of the advertising money still goes to television, radio, outdoor and print.

Levels of internet access have not increased substantially in South Africa, where, thanks to a combination of Telkom’s stranglehold and government ineptitude, it is still too expensive for most people (most of whom would not be in the market for PCs in any event), and frustratingly slow for those who can afford it. I have to laugh every time I see ads for 3G cards which include a 500MB allowance — in Australia, I managed to get through 12GB in less than two months.

Y&R EMEA’s head of strategy, Simon Silvester, argues that the mobile phone will be the device on which people in markets like South Africa will access the internet. “In emerging markets,” he argues, “the user’s first phone is also their first computer or camera. Increasingly, it’s going to be their bank account as well.”

In the latest figures I have seen, South Africa is listed as the world’s seventh biggest mobile advertising market, so mobile is already gaining traction as an advertising medium here. I wonder when readers of the Daily Sun will get their recommended daily allowance of tokoloshe stories by scrolling down a mobi site instead of paging through their neighbour’s well-thumbed copy. Certainly not in the short term, while data downloads are still so pricey. As for the user experience, I’ve found that even using an iPhone, surfing the net for any length of time is a less than optimal experience, and where I have the choice, I’d always opt for the bigger screen of a notebook.

So I suppose I’m exactly the kind of news reader who, globally, has contributed to the apparently terminal decline of newspapers in their traditional form. As it is, I very rarely buy newspapers, and do almost all my reading of news online. As a result, most of the advertising placed in newspapers misses me completely.

Luckily for the newspaper business in this country, people like me are in the minority, if the statistics are to be believed. There will be more and more of us in the years ahead. But in the mean time, anyone with newsprint flowing through their veins should be offering their thanks to Telkom, and composing fond elegies to the memory of the late Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri. Between them, they might just have helped stave off a bloodbath.