It is striking that Songezo Zibi is able to look at his paper so clearly from the outside, from a reader and an advertiser’s perspective. In the latest instalment of her “Backstory” series, Gill Moodie writes exclusively for Journalism.co.za:
Songezo Zibi is an unusual editor for unusual times.
Instead of working his way up through newsrooms, he spent many years in corporate communications before joining the Financial Mail and then becoming Business Day’s editor in May last year when Peter Bruce stepped aside after 13 years at the helm. Now he must lead South Africa’s premium business title through its roughest time.
Retrenchments, declining circulation, falling ad revenue and minus the income from JSE company notices are some of the challenges facing Business Day – while trying to grow online advertising revenue and managing audience shift from print to digital.
Take his explanation for Business Day’s recent revamp, for instance.
While the paper was due for a freshening up and it was necessary because decline in advertising has meant fewer pages, the most important reason for the revamp, Zibi told Journalism.co.za, was to align the paper with a more accurate idea of the Business Day reader that will make it a better sell to advertisers.
New readers not picking up the Business Day
Zibi says that the general assumption has been that Business Day is read by older male executives at the very top of the organisation: the “decision makers”. Yet market research and Zibi’s own experience working in the corporate world tells him that it is younger middle managers and professionals who are the quintessential reader.
“For example, when I moved to mining [from Volkswagen], the entire business-development team read the paper because they had to and none of them were GMs or executives.
“This partly explains the drop in circulation as there is a cost issue because it’s companies that subscribe to Business Day and when they cut costs, they cut the number of subscriptions.
“Another reason [for circulation decline] is that the new reader who should be picking up the paper because it talks to him or her just isn’t … As an example, Business Day has for a long time had a wine column, which is fine, but there is an explosion of whisky consumption in the country and Business Day doesn’t think it’s important.”
Growth in women middle managers ignored
There is also growth in women middle managers, he says, to which the paper has not paid enough attention.
“Our inability to reflect these insights in the paper means that you have no story to tell the advertisers. I’ve been on the other side of the fence, where BDFM [Business Day-Financial Mail unit now completely folded into Times Media Group] people approached me and all they could tell me was that the readers were the ‘decision makers’ and that kind of thing. I’m not sure how that helps Johnnie Walker resolve their questions about which channel offers the best value for money.
“I want them [the ad sales people] to be able to go to a luggage company and say: ‘Do you know that 55% of our readers travel x number of times per year on average’.”
It is evident that the news content has hardened up and gotten spunkier under Zibi. Further, the revamp means there are fewer stories on the front page and fewer turns.
The new editor is also striving to get more of the main front-page picture and headline higher above the fold.
“We’ve also given our page designers a bit more latitude. I’ve encouraged them to try new things. So we [colour] wash stories now, which we never, ever used to do. We’re using pictures bigger and we’re trying to improve our graphics.”
Previously, the first section of Business Day was mostly for news and the second section was for companies and markets. Now the first section has hard news, business and economy, and companies and markets while Section 2 is for reviews, opinion and analysis.
On the news of a new round of retrenchments – this time in the subscription room – Zibi says he believes Business Day has one of the biggest subsrooms in country. Further, some of the subbing is now done in advance so fewer people are needed on the day before publication.
“Our cost per page is high compared to other broadsheets… and that’s not ideal in a tight economy.”
Meanwhile, Zibi is encouraging his reporters to get out more rather than get sucked into JSE company announcements.
“I’m out of the office quite a bit … and I don’t crap on reporters for missing a SENS [Stock Exchange News Service] announcement. If you’re out somewhere and you missed a SENS announcement, tough. We’ll catch up.
“We’re also trying to wean everyone off the dependence on the announcement at the press briefing so we push the guys to decide to ask somebody a question about something that’s important. For example, we decide to ask the minister of finance about SAA. We can’t wait for the announcement. We decide we need to ask the minister repeatedly about what he is going to do about SARS. We need to be more aggressive. Half the time, this gives us nothing; the other half it gives us something.”
Because Business Day’s audience is monied, many have migrated to digital.
Zibi says a new app is in the works while he confirmed to Journalism.co.za that the paywall on BDLive had been dropped.
“We’re never going to see exponential growth in print”
“My view is we’re never going to see exponential growth in print because people are moving to digital and we need to focus more on expanding digital in a way that doesn’t cost additional money and provide additional real estate in the print product.”
The most recent circulation figures (for the last quarter of 2014) put Business Day at 30 883 total sales compared with 33 667 in the fourth quarter of 2013.
Zibi says unique users were at about 482 000 a month for BDLive, which makes a modest profit.
He believe that publishers will not have the luxury of deciding when the big switch to digital will happen.
“One day a cheap, good tablet will be on the market with free apps … If we can’t stay one step ahead of that game, we will die – and that is true for every newspaper. I believe you have a far greater chance of convincing people to pick up a cheaper digital offering than to convince them to pick up a newspaper.”
Is it too much for a publisher or editor to expect audience members to be brand-loyal today when social networks direct one to online content throughout the world?
Zibi believes it is more important to understand patterns of media consumption – time, place and devices.
“How much time does anyone have now? And how much do you get bombarded by emails and phone calls – and emails on your phone. Do I want to insist that people sit down and read the Business Day [newspaper] for 30 minutes when they will likely read it while they on the move? If I am to retain their loyalty, I should stop trying to make it so damn hard for them to consume it.”
- Bruce hands over Business Day to newcomer, Journalism.co.za, April 2014
- Financial press face the perfect storm, Journalism.co.za, Sept 2013
- BDFM’s Peter Bruce on paywalls, the plan for financial notices and Business Day’s editorship, Grubstreet, Jan 2013