‘When it comes to arrogance, power, and lack of accountability, journalists are probably the only people on the planet who make lawyers look good’ – Steven Brill
It was a conversation with my supervisor, a Nigerian academic at the Wits University, about newspaper circulation that got me curious. He wanted to be sure that the circulations figure I had cited in my research proposal were reliable because while tidying up a major project, he had come across an interesting figure for the Guardian.
The newspaper on its website says it has one million daily print readers while my research proposal cited an article, which suggested that the fifteen biggest newspapers in Nigeria were together selling less than 300,000 copies per day. The article was based on figures from an independent study by the Advertisers Association of Nigeria (ADVAN) that is till date disputed by the newspaper industry.
By the way, the disputed ADVAN study is the only available figure you’ll find regarding the circulation of Nigerian newspapers. As a one-time business reporter/editor, I’m well aware that reliable statistics are difficult to come by. To get around this, smart reporters in those days would use data from independent sources such as the Lagos Business School. The situation hasn’t changed very much from the early 1990s because as a doctorate student, I’m experiencing the same problem – struggling to find citable work on Nigeria by Nigerians.
Which is why It’s pertinent to ask the question: how many copies are Nigerian newspapers selling? I’m convinced that conversation is necessary and ultimately in the overall interest of the media industry. Now, I understand the industry’s reaction to the ADVAN study, after all, how do you justify the ever-increasing advertising rates when circulation appears to be going in the opposite direction.
Generally, advertising rates are directly related to the size of circulation because individuals and businesses don’t mind paying a premium to reach larger groups of people. So, the more you sell, the more you can charge for advertising. However, while circulation size primarily determines advertisement pricing, other factors such as the quality of the people reading the respective publications come into play. So, publications reaching decision makers like CEOs and those who make advertising decisions would typically command higher rates than those which appeal to the down-market.
To use an example from the United Kingdom, since reliable data for Nigeria is difficult to come by, a full-page advertisement in the Financial Times costs about £64,000 and £57,000 for Daily Mail. You get the principle when you consider the fact that daily circulation for the Financial Times is around183,000 while the Daily Mail sells over 1.26 million copies per day.
So, while other factors influence demand, the amount of circulation is generally regarded as the primary factor in the pricing of advertising space. This said, what then does one make of the Nigerian industry’s attitude to this vital industry data? If the newspapers disputed the ADVAN figures, why not provide their own? Or allow independent audit that’ll be acceptable to media owners and advertisers alike?
More questions than answers are what I get as I tried to make sense of it all. Only two of the major newspapers, Guardian and Vanguard, have any information on circulation on their website. Guardian says it has 1 million print reader, while Vanguard says it circulates 120,000 copies per day. The only other papers with any figure you can lay your hands on are ThisDay (100,000) Punch (80,000) and Leadership (100,000), and that is from their respective Wikipedia profiles. On its part, Nation, quoting the ADVAN study says it is the second most read newspaper in the country. For the other publications, you won’t find anything about how much copies they sell. The Guardian’s claim is interesting becasue it doesn’t state the composition of the one million readers. True, publications have different readers-per-copy and relationship between readership and circulation is notoriously difficult to defend. However, since household sizes are usually used for this estimate and if Nigeria has a household size of 4.6, the suggestion here is that the newspaper is selling more than 217,000 copies per day.
For an industry under pressure, I think this missing data harms rather than helps. The norm in most every other media market is to make these figures available, with the audit bureau of circulation being the independent body saddled with the responsibility to handle this all-important task. Rate cards or media kits are industry standards that not only provide advertisement rates but detail breakdown of readership and reach of respective publications so why are Nigerian newspapers avoiding using it? Is it an omission due to ignorance or deliberate omission, which would translate to a gross display of arrogance? Either way, I think Nigerian newspapers are missing a trick here.
It’s no longer news that journalism is in trouble, pressured by new technologies and their affordances. Across the world, social media and citizen journalism are disrupting the industry in significant ways, with revenue of traditional media houses badly hit as a result. Coupled with the pressure from dropping circulations newspapers across the are also battling disinformation and fake news, considered by editors as far more critical than copy sales.
The Nigerian situation is much more precarious if the circulation figures I have received from those who should know are anything to go by. Newspapers are still holding their own in major media markets in spite of fears of doomsday predictions. In the United Kingdom, four newspapers: Sun (1.45m); Daily Mail (1.26m); The Sun on Sunday (1.22m) and The Mail on Sunday (1.05m) all sell over a million copies per single edition. In the US, the USA Today (1.62m) and Wall https://www.bizcommunity.com/Article/196/90/183866.htmlStreet Journal (1.01m) sell more than a million copies for every edition. Japan is a different story altogether as Yomiuri Shimbun sells 8.73m for its morning edition and 2.53m for its evening edition. Asahi Shimbun does 6.11m and 1.89m respectively.
In Egypt, where state-funded newspapers have traditionally enjoyed big circulations and South Africa, copy sales are also falling below the levels that can easily be explained away by the digital disruptions. While newspapers in the more developed economies are hanging on and finding ways to boost revenue from their digital presence, economic woes and worsening poverty are combining with the migration of an increasing number of readers online to bleed newspapers of revenue.
So, what way forward for Nigerian newspapers? I get the sense that most are failing to respond adequately to the digital disruptions and that looks to me like where they have to start. The information gaps on their websites mentioned earlier sum it all up. When compared, the information on the Wikipedia profiles of ThisDay, Punch and Leadership fall come out second best to those of say, New York Times and Financial Times, yet that’s probably the first point of call when people are looking for information about them.
Again, when compared, the New York Times and Financial Times do a better job than any Nigerian paper, of selling themselves with the media kits they have on their websites. You get a full picture of their strengths with the detail of their readership and reach just by looking at the media kits, something you wish Nigerian papers will start doing. These obvious gaps suggest the absence of clear digital strategy, which can drive online revenue in the way that the likes of the New York Times and Financial Times are doing with their online versions.
In addition to upping their games online, the revival of the Audit Bureau of Circulation or some independent body to audit circulation is necessary for to do otherwise is to risk imminent implosion. Unless they submit to that independent, transparent process, advertising revenue will continue to fall as more people question the rationale of spending big on newspaper ads they’re not sure is effective. I know for sure that those conversations are already taking place in the offices of major advertisers and that it’s a matter of time before decisions on where advertising money goes are no longer made on the strength of friendship and connections. For long, advertising spend in a lot of corporates has been driven more on the strength of patronage rather than any consideration for return on investment. That won’t remain the case for much longer, I guarantee.