Death of newspapers in South Africa — and the rise of online

The circulation of newspapers in South Africa plummeted over the last decade, while news websites have shown incredible growth.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC) of South Africa’s newspaper circulation figures painted a bleak picture about the future of print publications.

Most prominent newspapers experienced a big year-on-year decline, while the ten-year change was disastrous.

The circulation of one of South Africa’s biggest daily newspapers, Daily Sun, plummeted by 89% over the last decade.

Other daily newspapers, like The Star, Son, Sowetan, and Beeld, also experienced significant circulation declines between 70% and 81%.

Weekly newspaper circulation numbers followed a similar trend.

South Africa’s largest newspaper, Sunday Times, saw a 75% decline over the last ten years.

None of the big weekend newspapers were spared. Rapport’s circulation shrunk by 70%, the Mail & Guardian by 79%, City Press by 86%, and the Saturday Star by 91%.

The table below provides an overview of the change in the circulation of South African newspapers over the last ten years.

Daily Newspapers
Newspaper 2011 2021 Change
Daily Sun 381,127 40,164 -89%
The Star 144,113 27,417 -81%
Son 105,486 20,588 -80%
Sowetan 120,207 29,252 -76%
Beeld 74,105 22,160 -70%
The Citizen 70,112 27,492 -61%
Business Day 36,087 15,297 -58%
Die Burger 61,669 29,800 -52%
Weekend Newspapers
Newspapers 2011 2021 Change
Saturday Star 103,767 9,120 -91%
City Press 149,586 20,920 -86%
Sunday World 150,925 30,100 -80%
Mail & Guardian 48,016 10,265 -79%
Sunday Times 463,156 116,012 -75%
Sunday Tribune 85,131 22,005 -74%
Rapport 241,286 72,184 -70%

Readers moving online

The readers who used to buy newspapers have moved online and are now getting their news from News24, BusinessTech, TimesLive, and IOL.

Over the last decade, South Africa’s most popular online publications have experienced exceptional growth.

BusinessTech has seen the most explosive growth, increasing its readership by over 10,000%.

TimesLive grew by 982%, News24 increased its readership by 527%, and MyBroadband attracted 441% more readers.

The table below shows the increase in readership of prominent South African online publications from 2012 to 2022.

Top Online Publications
Websites 2012 2022 Change 
BusinessTech 62 409 6 421 183 10189%
TimesLive 510 742 5 524 753 982% 2 049 835 12 861 524 527%
MyBroadband 545 155 2 949 203 441%
IOL 1 137 288 5 880 000 417%
SowetanLive 484 943 2 393 507 394%
MSN 1 011 325 2 062 664 104%
Supersport 601 300 838 989 40%

The impact on the South African media industry

The decline in newspaper readership and the migration online is not new — but the pandemic has accelerated it.

Many die-hard print fans stopped buying newspapers when the pandemic hit and looked for up-to-the-minute news online.

The sluggish economy also impacted advertising revenue as companies looked for the most affordable ways to reach users.

With print publications’ declining readership and the higher return on investment online advertising offers, marketing budgets flowing to magazines and newspapers plummeted.

It forced many South African magazines to close down, and newspapers are now struggling to make ends meet.

Although inevitable, the migration from print to online severely impacted the media industry.

Cheaper and more effective online advertising is great for companies looking to reach readers, but media companies are paying the price for this change.

Money that would have previously gone to newspapers are now going to Google and Facebook, and only a small part goes to online publishers.

There is, therefore, less money to invest in journalism — especially investigative journalism, which is expensive and resource-intensive.

Many people in the newspaper business chain, including editors, designers, printers, newspaper sellers, and delivery people, are losing their jobs.

The good news is that online publications have started to offer subscription services to fund their endeavours, which is working well.

Netwerk24 increased its paywall subscription by 13% over the last year to 80,900, while News24 signed up 41,000 subscribers since it implemented a paywall in August 2020.

We are, therefore, going full circle where people are once again paying for their news — like with newspapers — albeit at a much lower price.

Now read: News24 and Netwerk24 grow subscriptions — raking in R11 million per month

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Death of newspapers in South Africa — and the rise of online