What is a free sheet, and how do publishers expand their market for free sheet? These are questions that Tasmia Ismail, general manager of Media24, addressed at the INMA World Congress of News Media. Ismail spoke about how her company has grown its free sheet market footprint so much from 2004 to 2017.

The Eastern Cape (Cape Town, South Africa) that Media24 serves is a market that’s predominately rural, she said: “So there was lots of opportunity to be able to expand reach and footprint in terms of markets that weren’t exposed to a free sheet market, and we were able to tap into these areas and find these gaps.”

That market was not digitally savvy, which allowed for free sheet market penetration, Ismail said. A free sheet is a local, tabloid-style publication distributed door-to-door weekly at no cost to the reader.

“In the Eastern Cape, we have 327,000 newspapers,” Ismail said. “It’s a single brand called The Express, but they actually geo-located into areas where they present towns or cities and they have a hyper-local news content.”

This allows Media24 to cater to each of those markets individually and consolidate a massive footprint with almost a million readers weekly. Media24 has seen 18 million revenue in growth for its brand between 2014 and 2018.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the sense that both our readers — our audiences — and our advertisers gained substantial value out of this brand,” Ismail said. “I think we understand the global trends in terms of mainstream media. We see the declines, and I think for us on the Eastern Cape, the local titles actually bridge the gap between the digital transition and that regional media platform.”

The digital strategies of a free sheet are very much the same, Ismail said. “They’re looking for hyper-local content, they’re looking for audiences that kind of dive into regional news flow. We’re able to do that in a printed format because the regions in South Africa aren’t yet in a position grow digital or migrate digitally, like most other countries.”