x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

South Africa loses its weekend read

The abrupt closure of The Weekender newspaper last month leaves English language readers in two major cities without a major publication on Saturday.

The front page of the final edition of The Weekender newspaper in South Africa.
The front page of the final edition of The Weekender newspaper in South Africa.

JOHANNESBURG // The front page of a review section of South Africa's Weekender newspaper last month carried an interview with the Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame. In it, the writer asked "whether he feels he is in a dying profession". But while Woodward launched "a spirited defence of newspaper journalism", the front page of the news section laid bare the reality of the sector - announcing that it was the Weekender's last edition and it was being closed immediately.

A plug for the money and media section directed readers to a story on "Small bright spots in SA's gloomy economy", but they were clearly not enough to save the paper The Weekender is the first major media victim of the global recession in South Africa, which entered the downturn later than other countries and where lower internet penetration has until now and protected newspapers compared with elsewhere in the world.

In her farewell message, the executive editor, Rehana Rossouw, thanked the paper's contributors and columnists "for their commitment over the last few months when they sacrificed along with us in our bid to keep the paper alive". "It was a privilege to edit a newspaper for readers who were intelligent, committed and dedicated to the brand," she added. An unashamedly elitist publication, The Weekender, although limited in its number of pages, was distinguished by lengthy articles and a broader outlook than that of most South African papers. Subjects in the final edition included the travails of United Nations peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and an architecturally cutting-edge new building in Johannesburg.

Its demise leaves the English language readers of Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country's largest media market, with no heavyweight publication on Saturdays, the gap The Weekender was intended to fill when it was launched three years ago. In days after The Weekender's demise readers filled the letters pages of its sister publication, Business Day, with irate complaints at the move. It was "actually the only paper worth reading", said Patrice Lasserre of Pretoria.

Justice Malala, a columnist in The Times, a Johannesburg newspaper, wrote: "The Weekender was one of the most beautifully written and designed newspapers in South Africa today. Its columnists were always provocative, entertaining, learned and measured. "It was like having amazing friends over for dinner every weekend - Voices that remind us that our democracy was worth fighting for, and is worth defending every day, every hour, every minute.

"When a newspaper like The Weekender dies, those rich voices diminish, and so does our democracy." Others have suggested that failures of editorial vision or wider corporate motivations were to blame, but the reality is that The Weekender's circulation never reached sufficient levels to break even, and that even though South Africa's economy officially came out of recession last week, the downturn is now hitting its media - already fractured by linguistics as well as tastes - with a vengeance, in both advertising spending and copies sold.

The latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures show almost universal declines, with drops of as much as 10 per cent in the worst cases. The organisation pointed out that total weekend newspaper sales had fallen by 115,000, more than the average title's circulation. Peter Bruce, the editor of Business Day, whose circulation has fallen 5.6 per cent, was quoted as saying in his own newspaper: "This is carnage - the worst three months I have seen in a long time. The recession is doing great damage to print media."

In the United States, several papers have abandoned their print editions altogether, switching to become internet-only publications, a move that reliably slashes costs, but tends to have a huge effect on original news reporting. It is not a realistic option for most media operations in South Africa, where internet use remains largely a preserve of the urban elite. "Internet usage is only at the top 10 per cent of the market, whereas newspaper growth in recent years has all been in the working class market, where there is still limited internet usage," pointed out Anton Harber, a professor of journalism at Witwatersrand University.

"The Weekender never took off. Sales never broke 12,000, which is just not enough for a paper in this town. It never even succeeded in penetrating the elite, to be honest. This might be because it is this same elite who are using the internet and choosing from a range of international news sources." Among tabloid papers, he added, surveys suggested readership was holding steady or even rising, even though circulations were falling.

"It seems that more people are reading the same number of newspapers - a sure sign that it is a result of the recession hitting discretionary spending. A million jobs have been lost, and these would overwhelmingly have been among Daily Sun readers. "I anticipate upheavals in print media ownership and the consolidation of titles." Email:sberger@thenational.ae