'Then came September 11...'

2008-09-30 08:33
<b>(Seth McAllister, AFP)</b>

(Seth McAllister, AFP)

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Cobus Heyl

News24 relocated from Johannesburg to Cape Town in June 2001, to form part of the newly created Media24 Digital under guidance of Russell Hanly.

The move formed part of a restructuring of Media24's digital operations - the internet bubble had burst and lean times lay ahead.

The headcount was consolidated from around 30 people to around 15 or 18, with Douw Steyn as business manager, Cobus Heyl as editor and Mathabo le Roux and Nick Bezuidenhout as news editors.

In the process News24 lost experienced staff members like founding members Gallie van Rensburg and Johan van Wyk, but retained a core group of staff (if memory serves seven or so) and gained good expertise in new hirings in Cape Town.

At the time of the restructuring, News24 had lost some ground to IOL, but this was made up in the first two months of operation in Cape Town through renewed focus on local breaking news. Internally we verbalised our thinking at that time as follows: "While we publish in text and pictures News24 should be more 'uninterrupted broadcast news' than 'daily newspaper news'".

While News24's diet remained a mish-mash of wire content (around 70%) and translated newspaper content (around 20%), we further increased efforts to generate our own breaking news content on top of this - to lead rather than to follow.

These internal adjustments yielded positive results, but two events in 2001 boosted News24's momentum beyond expectation.

First there was the first Big Brother South Africa, a dubious news event in the traditional sense of the word, but news nonetheless as thousands of South Africans, if not a few million - especially those in the segments where internet usage was most prevalent at the time - followed the trials and tribulations of the housemates on TV and on the internet.

News24 created a special BBSA report, pulling it via Entertainment and onto the home page, and co-operated with Scoreline to bring users live updates with screengrabs as events unfolded (this worked especially well within the trend of high internet usage during the day and TV usage at night).

I remember there was serious debate over whether a "serious news brand like News24" should cover BBSA at all or about how the "news" should be handled. Even today it makes for a good discussion point.

There were two broad considerations applied at the time:

  • "Listen" to your consumers. While you can and should lead conversations of the day (if you went purely by readership/usage patterns, News24's home page would have consisted mostly of sex and scandal), you cannot dictate - especially on the internet when even then we started to see a shift in power to the consumer - everything consumed as news or not; and

  • We live in an age of socialites and celebrities (in the past decade or so even some CEO's and journalists have become celebrities rather than just people doing a face-less job). TV, especially, was a key driver of this culture, and the decision was for News24 to ride on its back

    In any event, as usage on News24 sky-rocketed most advertisers remained sceptical as soon as you started talking about the internet and Rands and cents. I guess our mantra at the time was "just to chip away, chip away" as potential clients, and friends and colleagues, at least thought (if not saying) "We told you so" about the "demise" of the internet:

    For example, it was around 2001 that a media guru at one of South Africa's top advertising agencies declared at a conference, "The internet is not worth talking about!" to the relief (delight?) of many colleagues who had to stomach declarations in the late 1990's of how the internet was going to kill print.

    We were up against it, but we believed. (Perhaps we just thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with this wonderful medium where you do not ask what is possible or can be done, but rather what are the elements should you focus on?).

    Then came Tuesday, September 11.

    At around 14:30 there might have been some mildly entertaining scene on News24 and Scoreline's BB live update application when the first of two American Airline Boeings struck the World Trade Centre in New York.

    This was news!

    So began one of the most exciting afternoon (and days and nights) at News24.

    We immediately switched the BB application to capture images of the unfolding drama in the US, commenting on news as it came in. Within seconds to minutes all news on the homepage was replaced with news reports and some of the most dramatic news pictures ever seen?

    It became a massive team effort: People who were not working that particular shift came in to help, others - who were lucky enough to have internet access at home, never mind always-on access - compiled reports and filed from there.

    For the next few days News24's breakfast, dinner and lunch was adrenaline.

    But 9/11 was not only the editorial team's day (it will be unfair to name names, because even the entertainment, sports and business desks contributed with the rest of the team). Several other departments worked closely with the editorial team:

    As traffic soared world-wide the servers of news websites began to fall over.

    Our IT team, led by Laki Franzidis, was instrumental in managing traffic flows on our servers. Brilliant job: News24 remained upright! William McIntosh, also in IT, became Mr Picture Gallery as he churned out one after the other gallery ("a good picture gallery says more than a 100 000 words").

    We dropped all heavy graphics off the homepage (bandwidth in those days!) and the design team sprang into action with explanatory maps, collages and more.

    Our marketing team (Russell Atkins) worked closely with the editorial team and immediately organised live reads on radio, positioning News24 as the local breaking news site on the event.

    Health24's team started generating background content to be used with news reports.

    Today I believe this was, undoubtedly, the day News24 stopped crawling and started to walk.

    2002:

    As far as usage was concerned, News24 never looked back again.

    However, its piggy bank remained largely empty and in September 2002 the operation had to be restructured again. The editorial team was cut back to just twelve; Cobus Heyl took over from Douw Steyn as publisher/business manager, Bryan Porter from Cobus as editor and with Jannie Momberg and Elmarie Jack as the news editors.

    During this time we managed to truly realise News24's potential as a referrer of traffic to other Media24 Digital sites for the first time.

    The site was positioned centrally to all Media24 Digital's sites and launched with a new look in December 2002 which included strong home-page focus areas showcasing content from elsewhere.

    In addition, related article links with stories could have contained News24 links, relevant internal Media24 digital links and relevant external links. The latter may seem trivial, but signalled a change for News24.

    This was still around the time of "walled garden" (keep your traffic within), but back in 2002 we recognised:

  • That the internet lowers barriers to content significantly. Users go where they get what they want, no matter the brand; and

  • The importance of a service-focus in this type of environment

    In a nutshell:

    Provide users with what they want or need, even if it means you send them out of your environment (which was against walled garden thinking). They will recognise News24's service-focus and this will bring them back time and again.

    Traffic continued to climb.

    2003 and 2004:

    Three or so events defined these years.

    Paid content (in our case: "gold, silver and bronze nuggets") became all the rage in the digital world.

    News24, along with other group-wide sites, closed some free access to international users. This meant some revenue from paid content, but the move was actually more defensive: bandwidth cost in SA was a killer and this enabled some management of this cost.

    This was not an ideal narrowband and news content business model, but it was a necessary exercise and perhaps one all in internet had to go through at the time.

    News24 launched on DStv

    The reaction to the move, among some, was interesting: we were warned that it would kill News24 online. Not so, we believed: News24's online usage peaked during office hours and dramatically dropped at night and over weekends. This exercise allowed News24 to strengthen its brand usage outside of peak hours too.

    The biggest development in 2003 was, however, when Media24 Digital's advertising sales team finally started earning (decent?) commissions after years' of chipping away.

    News24 became Media24's best performing digital unit (overall usage & revenue) in the 2003/4 fiscal year and, although percentages escape me and were admittedly off a low base, showed remarkable Y-on-Y revenue growth in 2003 and 2004.

    Usage-wise, at the end of 2004 News24 became the first South African site to register one million local unique users in a single month and in the course of 2004 started recording some profitable months.

    Cobus Heyl left News24 in November 2004 to take up a position elsewhere in the group and was replaced as business manager by Elan Lohman, formerly of the Sunday Times. Bryan remained as editor and Jannie and Elmarie as news editors.

    It was safe to say that at the time News24 had stopped walking and started jogging...

  • Cobus Heyl is a former publisher of News24.

    Send your comments to Cobus.

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