News24 turns ten

2008-09-29 12:35
Arrie Rossouw

Nothing beats the feeling when you know that you have the big scoop that will beat the competitors hands down. And when you see that in print with the smell of fresh ink on your hands holding that first copy of the newspaper hot off the press. Then you wait nervously for the first copy of the competitor's to see whether your story is indeed as exclusive as you have led the editor to believe.

This still happens every day in newsrooms all over the world, but nowadays the chances are good that the story is published somewhere in cyberspace long before it shows up on the front page of the newspaper. Somehow it is not the same... or is it?

With the advent of the internet - and the simultaneous arrival of computer laptops and cell phones - things have changed dramatically for daily newspapers. All of a sudden it was not just radio journalists who could file reports from the scene of the crime. Newspaper journalists for the first time got the opportunity to file stories via cell phone and laptop to the World Wide Web with immediate results. They started scooping even the radio guys.

That first time was exciting. The power of the immediacy of filing reports from the accident scene, courtroom, political rally, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, or way past the last deadline of the printed edition, was like a drug to print journalists used to rushing back to the office to file for the next day's paper.

That was almost a decade ago, when everybody that had access to the internet wanted to set up a website and publish news. One after the other newspaper brand migrated to the Web - some just to boast a presence on the Web, and many others with great and inflated expectations of massive worldwide audiences and new revenue streams. For most of them none of those expectations had materialised over the first ten years of internet in South Africa.

But South Africa did not stay behind in the internet race towards faster access, mobile telephony, broadband communication and wireless technology. And most newspapers followed the overseas trends, although on a more modest scale than at the beginning of the internet explosion in the early nineties. Newspapers did allocate resources and personnel to their internet businesses, but it was mainly geared towards publishing the daily and weekly print publications online. Only a few brave media companies with fairly deep pockets opted for the internet portal business with 24/7 news operations to anchor the online content.

New ground

I remember those days immediately after my return to Johannesburg early in 1997 from Washington, DC where I have spent three of the most exciting years of my journalistic career as correspondent for Naspers newspapers. I went to my editor at Beeld at the time, Johan de Wet, and told him that our newspaper needs a presence on the Web, and preferably in English. He must have thought I've gone bonkers in America wanting to start an English language website for an Afrikaans newspaper and update the news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I must have sounded really excited about what I have experienced with AOL and the early internet developments in the US But he had bought the idea.

Having been given the green light to start eBeeld, I approached an old colleague of mine, Jan Taljaard, who at the time was running one of the first web design businesses and his own website in Pretoria, to join me in setting up the site and run it from a small office downstairs from the editorial department, tucked away behind the IT section and the computer room. The rest of the editorial staff was not interested in what we were doing, but those that did take an interest were easily convinced to supply content for the new online news service.

We were true pioneers. The two of us did everything from designing and creating the website, linking it to the FTP server at head office in Cape Town, populating it with English content, mainly tapped from the newswires, and eventually setting up a network of freelancers to translate Afrikaans news reports from Beeld, Die Burger and Volksblad into English. The adrenalin rush edged us on day and night. On receiving our first web report on the number of hits on the website we were ecstatic. People out there in cyber space were actually reading our website!

After six months Naspers' new MD Koos Bekker noticed our entrepreneurial efforts and we were invited to become part of a core group of company personnel that would devise a comprehensive and very aggressive internet strategy for Naspers, which included the upstart internet division Mweb. In the six months that followed we were the chosen few that had the privilege to start an exciting new venture. The established old newspaper, magazine and book publishing company with its humble roots in 1915 were turned upside down and energized with the news of the internet onslaught led by the energetic and maverick Bekker himself.

When News24 had to be launched in October 1998 I had no hesitation to accept the invitation to become the first publisher. It had meant that I had to give up my very secure and senior position as deputy editor at Beeld to start a news website from scratch with no previous business experience.

The challenge was simply too exciting to let it pass by. Inspired by what I have seen in America, and my personal experience with eBeeld, I was gripped by the internet fever and its immediacy as a news medium. The journalist in me couldn't resist the thought of creating the ultimate website that would publish breaking news around the clock and running circles around the print and few other online competitors.

Within one year from its launch News24 became the biggest news website in the country - and today still holds that position. The winning strategy was, and still is, to employ seasoned print journalists to run the operation. They are skilled in producing accurate and quality content at breakneck speed and competing against grueling deadlines. That quality you don't often find outside the newspaper trade and that gave News24 its competitive edge. And the savvy web surfers soon realised and appreciated that.

Ups and downs

Since then many web experiments had come and gone. Naspers alone have launched close to 50 different websites. About half of it was new online brands and the rest were brand extensions of existing print publications. Only one or two didn't make the grade and were either closed down or its content incorporated into other web products. After six years in existence only a few of them are profitable, but they still serve their original branding purpose.

Initially newspaper companies around the world reacted quite negatively towards the digital onslaught. They saw the spectacular expansion of the Web in the nineties as a huge threat and made plans to counter it. But at the start of the new millennium they had realized the best option is to ride the digital wave and seize the opportunities created by it.

Timothy Balding, Director-general of the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), summed it up quite aptly when he had addressed the association's annual Conference in Rio de Janeiro in 2000: "The new and intensifying competition with the increasingly fragmented nature of media markets, is proving to be a remarkable stimulus to newspaper companies, both to play better on their traditional strengths and to exploit to the full the new media opportunities, using all the assets they have gained as dominant players in many information markets."

Let's be honest, newspapers still face major challenges from the online business, although the real threat is now better understood. On the whole the future path to survival and prosperity is now fairly clear. The following remarks are by no means a comprehensive overview of the path to success, but should serve as pointers in planning a strategy for growth in the digital age.

  • Rule Number One for all print publications should be to do what you do best, i.e. produce quality content. After all these years that is one of the most important lessons I have learnt.
  • Never compromise on your credibility in an effort to get the news out first - stick to the basic rules of journalism regarding accuracy and multiple sources. Check the facts before sending off the report into cyberspace. Don't let the adrenalin rush entice you into publishing a breaking news story, which could be an embarrassment to the trusted brand into which the company has invested millions.
  • Your strength as local newspaper is your local content. All newspapers are basically local in nature. Stick to that and give your readers even more of the relevant local news and information. Leave the international scene to the international online news services.
  • Integrate the print and online newsroom, or do not attempt to make a distinction, because it is a superficial divide, which serves no purpose. Treat all the news as content that should be available to publish at any time and in all media platforms. Every print reporter should become a web reporter as well.
  • Extend your trusted brand to the different media platforms with the aim of engaging your readers/customers even more than before. Your existing readers/customers change with the times and their favourite newspaper should following them or adapt to their new demands. By diversifying onto new platforms newspapers can reach new markets, such as younger people and online readers not buying the print edition yet.
  • Distribution, whether in print or online or via wireless channels, is the most important factor in the survival of newspaper brands. The dictum should be: news any time, any place, anyhow. Customers expect to have access to your content wherever they are, in the form they require, whenever they want it. Content is indeed king, but distribution is King Kong - it means nothing if you have excellent content, but it is not readily available to customers. They will simply log on to a competitor.
  • Newspapers must find a balance between their traditional, loyal readers of their print editions and the new, modern generation of young readers who are growing up on Playstation, X-Box, SMS, DVD and mp3. Do things online that you can't do in print, and be more "hip" or "cool" in the way you present your content online.
  • Online publishing in general has unfortunately become synonymous with shallow, fast information, and snappy breaking news. It need not be like that. Punchy, short news reports do not have to be unsubstantiated gossip and sensationalism. The challenge is to repackage the same quality content carefully prepared for print for other distribution channels and platforms into a format fitting that media. The same rule of accuracy applies.
  • The dictum in the newspaper industry should be "create once, publish many". Create content once and distribute that report or information for publication in as many platforms you have available. It makes business sense as well if you can sell the same information over and over.
  • The internet has brought with it major advantages. One of them is the ability to manage digitised content and create a digital database of users and subscribers. With it comes the possibility of tailored content, customer relationship management (CRM), better service and increased loyalty, and hopefully increased circulation and advertising revenue. Therein lies the real beauty of the new digital world.
  • Remember, newspaper publishing is not about printing ink in 24-hour cycles on chopped down trees anymore. It is about distributing content in all platforms - print, online, television, radio, cell phone, etc. Journalists have to adapt to this philosophy and the new demands and accompanied working conditions.

    Convergence

    Some of the leading media companies have started to invest in the convergence of the different media platforms within their businesses. Television, radio, print and internet operations get integrated or the content shared to a greater or lesser extent. Others simply create content once and distribute it in all platforms. The models vary form company to company and from country to country, depending on legislative obstacles.

    The concept is perhaps best expressed by Pedro J Ramirez, CEO and publisher of El Mundo, one of Spain's leading broadsheets: "Our mission is not to print news content. It is to distribute content in all platforms. I think that some newspapers may even survive just as a print company but they will not be able to perform fully their objectives as social players, as opinion-formers. To ignore the other media is to renounce delivering news to a much larger audience. We want to reach all our potential customers and we must follow their habits."

    The Afrikaans daily in Cape Town, Die Burger, has embarked on a different path. The newspaper has decided to publish its content on all available platforms ("create once, publish many"), whether it owns the platform or share it with outside partners. But it forms part of a strategy to make its content available to its existing customers "any time, any place, anyhow", and extend its trusted brand to potential new customers not reached by the print edition yet.

    The internet in all its present manifestations - the Web, broadband services, cell phones, e-mail, etc - forms an integral part of the papers customer loyalty program. The Burger-Plus loyalty program based on a cash back smart card system (supported by Infinity) is available to subscribers of the print publication only, and allows them exclusive access to all the web content (including content not available in print), historical digital archives, photo archives, electronic newsletters, e-mail alert services, SMS competitions, and discount deals with outside partners, advertisers and other Naspers businesses.

    At the heart of the program is the creation of a current digital database of customer information. Through this strategy the paper enhances its relationship with its most loyal customers and encourages two-way communication. It also creates opportunities for advertisers to speak directly to the core of Die Burger community like never before. For the newspaper's marketing, advertising and editorial departments the information gathered through this program is worth more than any traditional market research, and it is available at any time.

    Furthermore it has created a base from which to launch an e-commerce strategy, create personalized news products and niche online publications, editorial zoning, special editions of the print product, supplements, and many more. An extremely valuable platform has been created to improve the services the paper can deliver to its customers/readers and advertisers.

    You might well ask what this has to do with journalism. Apart from creating what is known in the Web jargon as "stickiness" to the print product, or the brand for that matter, it locks everybody into this unique newsroom/customer community. Journalists get to know their target market better, and that in turn focuses their attention on the kind of news/content they should produce.

    The newsroom becomes a multi-media information centre geared towards the gathering and processing of content (more than just news) to distribute in a series of platforms for most of the day and night.

    The future

    According to the Innovations in Newspapers 2000 World Report the future newsroom (and it already exists in many parts of he world) would reflect this reality. Instead of the old process of writing, editing and layout, newsrooms would consist of news desks for story development, content coordination, content creation and story writing, media-specific presentation and distribution, reader interaction and editorial information management. The report also predicted that the multi-media future would be focused more on "events" with virtual teams that collect, process and distribute news/content.

    But what does all of this boil down to? What does this mean for news reporting, as most of us in the trade know it? And what will become of journalists? Is there a role for newspapers, and journalists and news photographers in the digital future?

    The answer is quite clear: the more the web expands into the homes, offices and cars of ordinary people, and the more information they have to digest and rely on, the more the realization would dawn that quality and credible information is essential. ZigBee, 3G, Wi-Fi, WiMax, Mobile-Fi, Ultrawideband, ePaper and many more gadgets and future services will come and go, but the provider of information will always be King. And at the core of it all are the hacks typing away at the latest breaking news 24/7 around the globe.

    You can have all the bells and whistles of the new, digital universe, but if you do not have useful and compelling content, it means nothing. The bottom line remains: the news industry will always need good, exciting journalism. You need skilled journalists to create excellent content and content managers and sub editors that can mould that content into different formats fit for distribution everywhere. They are indispensable for the survival of the newspaper in print and online.

    Journalists should not fear the internet or the future. On the contrary, the internet has created exciting new avenues and opportunities for skilled media professionals - writers, sub editors, photographers, photojournalists and graphic artists. The more the Web expands onto new devices, the more the demand will grow for journalists with different expertise.

    And nothing will change that excitement and adrenalin rush when you get that scoop (sorry, content) and pass it on to the content processor (read, sub editor) for distribution on the first available platform (cell phone, Web, newspaper, e-mail). It doesn't sound the same, but it will be the same old feeling. Nobody can take that away from us!

  • Arrie Rossouw was the first publisher of News24 and former editorial director of 24.com. This article was first published in Changing the Fourth Estate: Essays on South African journalism, an HSRC publication.

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