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Are UK papers looking for salvation in Southern Africa?

Two British-owned weeklies –The International Express and The Weekly Telegraph– are being launched in Southern Africa at a time when circulations of tabloids in the United Kingdom are plummeting, raising questions as to whether the aim of the publishers is to inform the people in this region or merely to make up for lost business at home.

The move also comes at a time when local publishers are launching several newspapers or magazines. Herbert Munangatire and Lawrence Vambe have already announced that they intend to launch a Sunday paper called The Sunday Times while former Parade editor, Andy Moyse has launched a monthly magazine Horizon and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions says it intends to launch its own paper called The Worker.

Tabloids are disappearing faster than a reporter’s expenses. In the past 30 years daily tabloid circulation has fallen from 14.4 million to 12.1 million. Gone are the days when circulations of the Daily Express, for example, reached 4.3 million in 1961 and that of the Daily Mirror hit a record 5.25 million in 1967.

Even at its most successful, in the late 1980s, The Sun only managed 4.3 million and has since declined to 3.6 million. The year-on-year decline of The Sun is now 265 000 and that of The Mirror 208 000. The two papers have lost 900 000 in sales in two years.

The story is the same for Sunday papers with the News of the World which reached 8 million in 1950 now down to 4.8 million. The Sunday Pictorial (now Mirror) and The People which once chalked over 5 million now seem unable to get back over 3 million.

While recession could be one of the major reasons for the decline in circulations, The Guardian says, there are other factors that could be be the cause. These include education, television, saturation, market apathy, reaction against gimmicks and political change.

It notes that newspapers depend on literacy as a basic skill. The most recent survey, it says, found that one in four school-leavers had reading difficulties. It is essential for tabloids to win new, young readers and illiteracy is hardly a foundation on which to build a future readership, the paper says.

It says television could also be killing the tabloids because of their parasitical relationship with television. People now cite TV as their main source of news and audiences have been boosted by 24-hour broadcasting and satellite stations.

The paper says the British who historically bought more papers per head than their European or American counterparts are now more discriminating in their choice of paper because after all “the trouble with the papers is that they are all the same.”

It also says reader boredom may have developed because today’s papers have become too bland and too safe.

“When papers gave people what they wanted regardless of constraints they bought them. Readers want uninhibited kiss-and-tell stories, unexpurgated serialisations of sexy books, uncensored pictures of young royals relieving themselves in public, unregulated freedom to publish anything the public will buy,” the paper says.

While some papers organised games to boost circulations this has not totally worked because some of the games attracted older readers instead of new ones, it says.

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