notes on viability of community newspapers
Submission to Independent Media Diversity Trust
by Guy Berger,1997
1. Project viability: audience stated needs and priorities as a community resource.
This is tricky, as the history of South shows. South activists grew out of Grassroots, which was unashamedly as much an agitator as a reflection of the stated needs of the community. It did not merely service a "market"; it developed it.
South played a similar role, and both in the end failed to survive because inter alia the market changed and the papers did not. South did not change, because of its political agenda, and its activist staffers. Survival of the paper was not an end itself, but subordinate to these constraints - ultimately fatally.
In other words, there clearly needs to be a close fit between a paper and its audience, but this does not mean that a new product cannot find or create an audience. To restrict oneself to looking only at "stated needs" is to ignore the fact that a product can service unstated needs, uncover other needs, and even create new needs.
One set of needs that is absolutely vital concerns potential advertisers. Unless these needs are identified, or created, there is no way a publication is going to succeed financially even if it successfully meets the needs of an audience.
2. Viability: capacity and skills.
There is an assumption that editorial capacity entails the technical skills of writing, editing, design and photojournalism. These are clearly important. But even more important probably is the skill of niching the paper amongst its readers. A paper like Nemato Voice lost circulation because it failed to provide information for which people were prepared to pay. The strategic mix of a publication, its qualities in terms of gathering real new news stories (and advertising - for which reason many people also buy newspapers), and its value as a use-paper, and an educational resources are vital. This really requires good reporters less than good writers, subs or designers.
As far as managerial capacity goes, one can refer to editorial management and to business management. Both entail leadership, responsibility, and formal skills. In a small paper, a leadership figure needs both, even if some are delegated or shared. A paper is a complex enterprise, and in a sense people can only learn through experience how to deal with the myriad factors (from printing press capabilities, to defamation cases). Certain experience can be simulated, participant observation is possible, training can be provided in spurts over a sustained period of time, lessons can be shared by networking. However, the start of a new publication must - experience shows - only be supported if sponsors are in for the long haul. This is a trajectory, too, which is not always linear: it has dips and dives, changes in personnel that require re-learning, etc.
Human relations skills are vital especially in the field of efficient management.
Most people in the community/alternative press do not know how to operate
in terms of who reports to whom, and in terms of line responsibility. Job
descriptions and appraisals were lacking - due to pressures of time. Training
is definitely needed here. Likewise, training in skills of efficient meeting
procedures, time management, internal staff communications systems, and
so on is vital.
3. Marketing and financial skills:
My experience is that too much time on an alternative/community publication goes into finances (fundraising) and production, and not enough into circulation. This means that promotions and distribution are left neglected. Bringing the publication to market is thus flawed. Certainly, specialised skills are needed here: understanding distribution is a scientific, time-consuming, enterprise. Targeted promotions is also something that needs to be learnt.
Financial skills: basic understanding of budgeting is essential, even if there is outsourcing of things like audits. It was often hard for me at South to understand quite what to do with a cash flow analysis in terms of practical management. It was hard to know what timeframes were most meaningful for assessing data (one month's losses, or three months' performance by which time for instance, Christmas ads would have been paid).
My experience is that there is also a great weakness in operational systems for collecting, and analysing, data. More often than not, data is late, and of little practical use to managers. Often too, there is a knock on with debtors building up without adequate check or call in. This happened at Ecna which kept on supplying Radio Ciskei despite huge unpaid debts, and which monies are unlikely ever to be seen. Another effect at Ecna was that tax was not paid for one year, and had to be backpaid at a time when the organisation believed its reserves were a certain level and had to cope with a substantial drop in them.
Administrative systems for financial management are thus vital. They also have a bearing on how much outsiders can help. At South, we were sometimes unable to produce data for monthly directors' meetings, meaning that their inputs were inhibited.
A big problem was finding and setting up an adequate computer programme for the job, one that would enter data, plus calculate salaries, tax, uif, rsc levies, etc, aged debtor analysis, freelance payments, etc.
4. Business plan and sales strategies and processes:
The best laid plans go awry. However, that is not a reason not to have them; it is cause to re-jig them. At South we had business plans with particular projections, and from these we devised specific programmes and strategies (eg. To build circulation amongst teachers by means of xyz content, promotions, distribution). They were valuable, but insufficient for survival. The slip between cup and lip was often related to incompetent staff, lack of follow-through and monitoring of steps taken, delayed recognition of the problems. I should also say that we built business plans on the basis of past performance and shrewd suss of the market. We did not do market research, for instance, as to what motor dealers or white goods suppliers hoped to turnover in relation to the Coloured market, etc. This was probably a flaw. So while our business plan was coherent, its genesis was limited.
Sales and distribution strategies: one thing is clear, publications do not sell themselves (not even pornography these days). The public does not read much, even when the info is free. To require payment means that customer promise must be high - and be fulfilled. We learnt slowly at South that hyping stories did not build circulation in the longer term. This is the first consideration. The second is that the product also has to be available besides being desirable. In South's case, late production on occasion meant late circulation, meant poor sales. We also got into a downward spiral, courtesy of Allied publishers, of low sales leading to lower supply, leading to more low sales, etc. Circulation needs to be tightly monitored with spot checks, and we did not have human capacity for this, nor did we have transport. Besides being desirable, the publication needs to be visible, and publishers need to learn the various mechanisms to promote this, as well as to operate continuous monitoring of visibility.
As far as a strategy for distribution goes, we learnt at South to break down our readership into geographical and social communities (eg. Athlone, Wynberg, etc; teachers, unionists, students, etc). What was more difficult was not only to get delivery mechanisms to these groupings, but to ensure that the publication regularly covered them as well. It is difficult to integrate distribution and editorial strategies.
5. Most economically-efficient levels of staffing, equipment and production.
Because of the hand-to-mouth budgets, combined with frequent crisis management (key staffer sick, no one else with the skills; computers crash; lawyers' letters), it proved hard to focus on this topic consistently. The pressure on survival was felt continuously, and short-term thinking resulted. If a quick fix lured, it was pursued, often detracting from the core, ongoing business (eg. A relaunch, a flirtation with an oil company benefactor, etc.) When one is feeling one's way, it is hard not to be reactive: to respond to every luncheon invitation in case opportunities present themselves.
I do not think that South was overstaffed or over-equipped, because each
person had more than one job to do. Underproductive yes, due to lack of
competence. I have no formulae here for assessing right-sizing. However,
I would certainly err on the side of oversizing if I were setting up a publication.
To cut your coat according to the cloth can lead to a garment that is intrinsically
faulty and will fall apart sooner or later.