Newspaper readership is not declining, the landscape is changing

Kipkogei Kemboi
Post Date: 08 August 2019

Globally, in the last two decades, the talks of newspaper circulation declining and eventual closure of those firms have been in the public domain. In some countries like the United Kingdom, they have nearly two hundred fewer regional and local newspapers now than in 2005. The picture is similar in the United States. A once-unthinkable scenario is now real. It’s no longer hypothetical talk, it is happening. My argument, however, is that the Newspaper industry is shifting and the landscape is changing. This means that the consumption of news remains unchanged.

In the United States, the weekday print circulation has shrivelled from a high of nearly 60 million in 1994 to 35 million for combined print and digital circulation today (24 years of decline). Advertising revenue from the physical newspapers has also fallen. The revenue in the United States fell from $65 billion in 2000 to less than $19 billion in 2016. Consequently, newsroom employment fell nearly 40 per cent between 1994 and 2014 (Pew Research Centre, 2019).

Here in Kenya, circulation of Kiswahili and English newspapers (Daily) has continuously declined in the last five years, as shown in Chart 1. The circulation has declined more in Kiswahili newspapers than English. The decline for English Newspapers peaked in 2017 while it peaked for Kiswahili Newspapers peaked in 2016. 

Chart 1: Kenya’s rate of decline for Daily and Weekly Newspapers Circulation (2014-2018)

Source: 2019 KNBS Economic Survey

The circulation declined in weekly newspapers in both languages continuously over the last five years as shown in the chart above.

The decline in the weekly newspapers peaked in 2016, with Kiswahili Weekly newspapers declining at 23% while the English Newspapers declining at 8% in the same year. 

Despite the decline in the number of daily and weekly circulation, all is not gloom. Showing a decline in Newspaper circulation does not mean that the intended consumers of newspapers have changed preferences. On the contrary, the newspaper-reading population has actually not changed but could have increased. However, the mode of consuming news could have probably changed. One of the ways to confirm that is the number of online visits on the newspaper sites 

Based on the data surveyed (2014-2018), we found out that the number of daily visits to newspaper sites averaged 2.04 million every year. In four years alone, the number of daily visits grew almost three times. The number of daily visits grew from 1.03 million visits in 2014 to 2.9 million visits in 2018 (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2019). Based on this significant number of visits, Newspaper owners should develop products that they can use to leverage this kind of traffic. My take is that the first "birds" to get the concept early will be the market leaders mode of news consumption might shift completely.   

Nowadays, social media platforms have made the sharing of information ubiquitous and nonstop. Developing a model that can monetize that kind of new digital print is, therefore, an essential requirement for survival in the industry. Globally, digital subscriptions have been on an upward trend. The surge in digital subscriptions at The Washington Post and The New York Times shows growing confidence that consumers have an incredible and diverse set of news. 

My argument is; the changing dynamics of the industry will bring new sectors and opportunities that the Kenya industry players can tap into.  Globally, digital advertising accounted for 35% of newspaper advertising revenue in 2018. These data are based on this analysis of publicly traded newspaper companies. The portion stood at 31% in 2017 – but at 17% in 2011, the first year it was possible to perform this analysis (Pew Research Centre, 2019). My conclusion is that selling news is just like any other service. The superior product will have a larger demand. 

So, next time you hear about the talk of newspaper circulation declining, it depends on who is talking. What they are probably referring to is the end of print newspaper.

Table 1: Local Daily/Weekly Newspapers in Circulation, 2014– 2018(000 copies)

Source; Economic Survey 2019 -Excludes free newspapers, *Provisional


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