Making history on the 14th floor

2008-10-09 14:25

As journalists, ours will be remembered as a decade of fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of a disruptive technology destroying a business that has defined information distribution since Guttenberg.

But ours will also be remembered as a generation that embraced community, conversation, and the simple understanding that journalism is not a profession, but an action.

When I started at News24 in early 2003, the site had established an audience base of around 300 000 monthly unique users, had cut its staff to just 13, publishing 19 hours a day, seven days a week.

We immediately set to making some significant changes to the way in which news was presented on the site.

Specifically, shortening the blurbs on the home and section pages, and ensuring these were tighter, punchier, and drew the reader in to click through to the article; restricting headlines to a single deck; including a thumbnail image with each article to provide the reader with a visual cue; and perhaps most importantly, shortening all our copy to between 300 to 500 words to cater for the shorter attention spans of web readers.

With Jannie Momberg as our day news editor, and Elmarie Jack as our night news editor, we ran a small, but dedicated and passionate team, who embraced these principles and shared a passion for news with a population defining its identity against an ever-changing political, racial, social, economic and international context.

As editors, we listened to the demands of our audience, and embraced the technologies that allowed us to hear what our audience wanted to know. And then we delivered. Internally, at News24, this caused much debate, as our seasoned journalists and editors would constantly argue editorial values and principles against popular demand.

I believe that in the end, it was this robust debate within our newsroom that allowed us to strike a balance - being informative, without resorting to sensationalism, and being entertaining, without becoming tabloid.

By 2005 our small team had grown our audience to more than one million monthly visitors, the brand was live across three media - web, television and mobile, and had established itself as the most popular website on the continent - a position it would, and has, continued to grow.

As my predecessors will attest, and I'm sure the current editor would agree, News24 has crept into our souls, and I could wax lyrical on the experiences we've shared for hours. For those of you whose interest I've managed to hold onto, here's a short run-down of some of the highlights I experienced during my tenure as editor of News24:

True convergence: TV

We began talking to Multichoice in 2004, and immediately saw the opportunity for a natural synergy between our two businesses on the new DStv interactive platform.

Within a few short weeks, News24 was not only publishing to the web, but was also available to television viewers. Within the first year, reports showed that over a quarter of a million South African households were using the service.

For the news team, the DStv development signalled a significant change in operations.

The South African internet market hadn't yet seen large numbers of 'at home' users. Dial-up internet access was expensive and slow. Previously, our night news editor had focused on putting together a round up of big stories as well as the translations from the next morning's news and analysis from our newspaper partners (Beeld, Volksblad, Die Burger, Rapport).

All of a sudden we found ourselves in a situation where we were breaking the news on our DStv channel ahead of prime time news reports on the terrestrial channels.

Our evening team, under the leadership of our night editor Elmarie Jack, now focused on real time news updates right into the early hours of the morning.

More convergence: Mobile

At the same time, News24 was working hard on releasing its first WAP site, to make the news available to cellphones for people on the move.

This heralded a new brand position for News24 - 'Anywhere, Anytime', meaning our users could access the news wherever they were, whenever they liked, on the device of their choice.

When the five digit numbers were introduced, we decided to take a bold step, and provide free breaking SMS news alerts to our users, and absorb the cost ourselves. I remember the thinking at the time that this was the digital version of the street pole ad, and an effective way of marketing a product that let the users know when they needed to consume the news.

News24's main competitors were IOL, iAfrica, eM&G and the SABC News site. While our traffic and brand awareness were outstripping the competition, we were constantly looking to differentiate ourselves in a market where most breaking news came from the wire services.

We decided on a three-fold approach - 1. Break the news first. 2. Package and present the news better than our competitors in a manner best suited to the medium. 3. Add a unique voice and personality to News24.

New voices

With this third point in mind, News24 set aside a small amount of its budget to recruit regular columnists to cover a wide area of topical issues. We launched our columnists section in mid 2004, focusing on News analysis, Financial and Sport commentary, and a humorous take on a nation needing to laugh at itself more.

The reaction was immediate, and the conversation had begun. We began to receive hitherto unprecedented volumes of user feedback, forum debate and comments on articles. We'd entered a new era, and brought the debate to News24.

A Commercial Success

With the bedrock well laid by Cobus and his predecessors, publisher Elan Lohmann arrived at News24, and set towards aggressively monetising News24, revamping the advertising model, extending the product offering and focusing on a more service-oriented approach to advertisers.

A task he succeeded in accomplishing without us sacrificing the editorial standards of the product.

To all the staff who have worked at News24 over the years, to all the contributors, freelancers, and millions of users, happy 10th birthday.

  • Bryan Porter was editor at News24 between 2003 and 2006. He is currently the publisher of GoTravel24 - a division of 24.com.

    Send your comments to Bryan.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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