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Above-the-fold myth

South Africa is still very much a country where newspapers are sold by street hawkers.

Here’s a photo taken from my car while driving around Johannesburg a couple of weeks ago.

street-hawker2.JPG

What’s amazing is that morning papers are still being sold in the evening.

Does that mean the morning papers are not doing as well?

Latest circulation figures show that many papers there have taken a hit in sales. The top-selling paper, The Sunday Times, suffered a 40,000 decline year on year in the last quarter.

Drops of 20,000 is not uncommon.

Nobody seems to have any idea why. But one thing it does show is that it is absolutely not true  that newspapers will sell if there are lots of things above the fold.

Can ignorance be justified?

In The Diary of the Media section of The Australian today (Aug 30, 2010), the writer Caroline Overington says it was the first time she had heard of the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association (Panpa).

This comes as a shocker since she is the media writer for the paper!

While it is true that it is very much a boys’ club (in the words of Caroline, “the vibe was very much like that at Car Dealer  of the Year” with “945 men plus three women, one of whom had to play barrel girl”) it is quite wrong to dismiss an organisation that has done much for newspapers, especially those in Australia and New Zealand.

Unfortunately, Panpa has not grown out of its Australia-New Zealand axis despite having been around since 1969 (probably longer than Caroline has lived).

Most of the attendees at its annual conference over the years have been papers in these two countries, although its name suggests it should really represent publishers in the Pacific area which is quite vast.

Journalistic awards dished out at its annual gala dinner have been anything but world class, save for a few of the bigger papers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian.

Only a handful of the papers that win awards at Panpa will ever make the cut at international competitions such as the Society for News Design’s annual design competition or the International Colour Quality Club.

To be fair, many of the awards for marketing, circulation and non-journalistic ones have been of a very high standard.

Does that say something about the standard of journalism, especially in the smaller cities and towns of Australia  and New Zealand?