Newspapers, online, the Times, and the missing niche

For international news, nothing beats online. I’m informed of the story, often with greater in-depth analysis, well-before it makes the newspapers. National weekly newspapers sometimes add important value – the Mail and Guardian’s coverage on Zimbabwe is excellent, and far surpasses most international coverage.

With the launch of the Times, a daily national, as well as general trends in the media industry (well analysed recently by M&G online editor Matthew Buckland) local dailies such as the Cape Times, Star, Citizen and Natal Witness (which I must say has one of most offputting sites I’ve ever seen) are facing a serious challenge.

But there’s one area in which they excel, which I haven’t seen much mention of, and which they should be looking to expand – local content.

What kind of content do I mean? I mean stories such as (using the Cape Times as an example) Hair care based on herbs (about the Cape Town herb group meeting in Rondebosch), Masiphumelele’s ‘miracle of reconciliation’ hailed (about Somalis and locals getting on in Masip.), or Walk Lion’s Head (about the Friends of Lion’s Head’s organised walk). Things that online, and the national dailies just don’t cover very well. This is content that’s unique to a local daily, and of interest to local readers.

If you tried to follow the Cape Times links, you’ll see that all are premier content, or content only available to subscribers.

I believe this is a mistake.

Why? Let’s look at a fictional Ms. Modin’s habits to investigate further. She lives in Cape Town, and is online all the time. She doesn’t buy daily newspapers, and there’s almost nothing that will make her change that habit. She regularly buy weeklies and lazes in the garden to read at leisure, but she doesn’t have time for that during the week. At best she’ll read one lying around in a coffee shop during the lunch break. Newspapers, as pointed out by Matthew Buckland, are a luxury/leisure item, and it’s no surprise that their sales are greatest at weekends. Because they’re read at leisure, Ms. Modin can appreciate reading in-depth analysis. In this regard, something like the M&G gets it right. The Saturday Argus doesn’t.

She does occasionally buy the Saturday Argus, mainly for the classifieds (she may not do this much longer), and to try and keep up with what’s going on locally.

So where does she get her daily local content?

Simply put, nowhere. And this is what the media groups who have access to this content should be leveraging. She can read all the national and international news on IOL, News24, Mail and Guardian’s or the Sunday Times. They all compete with each other for national news, and they all compete with thousands of other top sites for international news. So they do quite well and feel quite pleased if she visits them. But the one kind of content that the Independent group and Media24 have (Sunday Times and M&G don’t have access to much local content), that she can get nowhere else, is usually locked, hidden away, or unavailable. Her only reason for visiting the Cape Times or Argus sites is taken away (whether these sites should exist at all, or be part of the much stronger and more successful online brand, IOL, is another matter altogether)

The Sunday Times strategy will, I believe, be highly successful. The daily newspaper becomes a value-add for their weekly subscribers, and their advertisers. In doing so, it challenges in particular the Independent group in a way to which they cannot easily respond. Now, even those loyal Sunday Argus readers, given a choice between renewing their Argus subscription, or taking out a Sunday Times subscription with a daily thrown in, will surely reconsider. Independent cannot respond without a complete reworking of their business plan, as they rely upon the sales of their dailies.

The only thing they, and Media24, have that the competition don’t is local content. Their strategy needs to incorporate that strength much more coherently than it does at present.