The traditional print newspaper, once a staple of daily life, is now facing an existential crisis. 

Just last month, South Africa’s Media24 announced a restructuring that could result in the loss of up to 400 jobs and the cessation of print editions for five major newspapers: Beeld, Rapport, City Press, Daily Sun, and Soccer Laduma. This move, slated to take effect on September 30, marks another significant blow to the global print media industry.

The struggles faced by Media24 are not isolated. In the United States, the decline of local news has reached a critical point. According to a November report by the Associated Press, the nation has lost a third of its newspapers and two-thirds of its newspaper journalists since 2005. The Northwestern University study highlights an alarming trend: an average of 2.5 newspapers closed each week in 2023, up from two a week the previous year. Most of these closures are weekly publications, crucial in areas with few or no other news sources. This decline is mirrored across the globe.

In Botswana, Titus Mbuya, Managing Director of Dikgang Publishing Company, highlighted the dire situation facing print media during the launch of the African Barometer Botswana 2023. Mbuya lamented the diminished capacity of newspapers to cover significant events like the upcoming general elections, citing reduced profitability and the growing dominance of digital media. The digital revolution has dramatically altered the media landscape.

Newspapers, traditionally reliant on advertising revenue, now compete with digital giants like Facebook and Google. These tech behemoths dominate the digital advertising space, siphoning off revenue that once sustained print media. As Mbuya succinctly put it, “The future of print lies in digital platforms.”

Media24’s CEO, Ishmet Davidson, echoed this sentiment, attributing the decline in advertising and circulation to decades of systemic changes. The shift to digital consumption has been relentless, leaving print newspapers struggling to adapt. Consumers now prefer the immediacy and convenience of digital news, accessible anytime and anywhere.

Closer to home, the Times of Eswatini's circulation numbers starkly illustrate this trend. With a population of over 1.2 million, the newspaper’s circulation has dwindled to just 10,000.

This decline underscores a broader issue: media consumers are increasingly turning to a diverse array of digital sources for their news, undermining the traditional newspaper model.

Speaking to The Bridge, Nqaba Matshazi,  Coordinator at the Media Institute for Southern  Africa  (MISA) said the decline of print media worldwide is alarming, particularly for Africa, given the high costs and limited availability of the internet.

"In this context, alternative forms of information access are essential, and print media has long filled this role. We need strategic planning to ensure future access to information, which is crucial for the democratization of our societies. Without print media, fewer people will engage in governance processes. This trend is concerning, and we must develop strategies to keep print media viable in the digital age. Broadcast media is also facing similar challenges with the rise of podcasts and other platforms," Matshazi added.

As print newspapers grapple with these challenges, the industry faces a critical juncture. To survive, print media must innovate and adapt to the digital age. This involves not only shifting to digital platforms but also finding new ways to engage audiences and generate revenue. Subscription models, digital advertising, and multimedia content are potential avenues for growth.

A big Eswatini advertiser who spoke to The Bridge on condition of anonymity said it no longer makes sense to spend millions advertising in the print media.

"Look, I speak as someone who used to allocate a significant portion of our marketing budget to print media here in Eswatini; the landscape has drastically changed. The return on investment for print advertising has steadily declined, and it's no longer justifiable. Digital platforms offer more targeted and measurable outcomes, allowing us to reach our audience more effectively and efficiently. While it's unfortunate to see the decline of newspapers, the shift to digital advertising is simply a reflection of where consumers are now engaging with content," she said.

However, the transition is fraught with difficulties. Newspapers must balance maintaining journalistic integrity and quality while navigating the commercial pressures of the digital marketplace. The loss of local newspapers, in particular, poses a significant threat to communities, depriving them of reliable news sources and undermining informed civic participation.

The decline of print newspapers is a complex, multifaceted issue driven by technological, economic, and social changes. The recent developments at Media24, along with similar trends globally, highlight the urgent need for the industry to evolve.

While the future of print media may be uncertain, one thing is clear: the shift to digital is not just inevitable but essential for survival in the modern media landscape. The challenge now is to ensure that this transition preserves the critical role of journalism in society, fostering informed and engaged communities in the digital age.