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Hands Across the Sea — Linthicum’s Letter for June 2013

Tom Linthicum, former executive editor and vice president of The Daily Record, writes a monthly report from the Republic of South Africa — also known as RSA — exclusively for ExPress News.

By Tom Linthicum

Remember Grocott’s Mail, the twice-weekly local newspaper in Grahamstown that I told you about when I first got here? Well, it’s now a weekly with a revved-up website.
The change came a few weeks ago in conjunction with hoopla surrounding the paper’s 143rd anniversary, an impressive milestone. The good news is that the newspaper is still alive and as feisty as ever, still needling the local government at every opportunity and demanding accountability at every turn.

In fact, the paper recently won a prestigious national journalism award for its efforts. The judges praised Grocott’s for “the depth of understanding how to put together a newspaper that talks to its readers.”
Grocott’s does do an outstanding job of talking to – and with – its readers. It has a well-stocked letters-to-the-editor page that often spills onto a second page, runs text messages and tweets in print and online and features guest columnists. Its stories are not just hard news but also interesting and entertaining features and lifestyle stories, with heavy emphasis on the many public and private schools in town.

Yet even with all of these positives, the numbers weren’t working. Advertising revenue wasn’t keeping up with expenses, despite the tiny staff, and changes were needed. Thus the shift from Tuesday-Friday to Friday-only publication.
Ironically, in going weekly, the paper has come full circle. It began in 1870 as Grocott’s Free Paper, published every Wednesday. That business model lasted only two years as the paper became Grocott’s Penny Mail, published biweekly, in 1872. Ten years later it went to tri-weekly and was sold across South Africa. With the coming of the Boer War, it added a weekly war supplement and increased its press run to serve a growing overseas circulation.

In 1920, the paper merged with another publication and became Grocott’s Daily Mail. It remained a daily for 45 years, when it reverted to biweekly status in 1965. The paper received a badly needed infusion of resources when it was bought by Rhodes University in 2003 and remained bi-weekly until now. The paper is taking a risk with its pricing in going weekly, because it will actually lose print circulation revenue unless it gains readers. The two issues per week each cost 5 rand, or about 50 cents. The one combined issue costs 7 rand, or about 70 cents. I can’t say that I understand their math, so I hope they know something I don’t.

In a column announcing the changes, General Manager Steve Kromberg promised to give readers “more for less money.” That’s gutsy and it may prove impossible, but they’re giving it their best shot.
“As has always been the case, our readers will be the judges, and you will decide if we survive and in what form,” Kromberg wrote.

As always, all ideas are appreciated. Best to all.
Tom Linthicum
You can write to Tom at lthomas155@aol.com.

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