20/20 vision: News24 reflects on 2 decades of breaking news, innovation and editorial excellence

2018-12-21 13:16
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As 2018 draws to a close, we at News24 have taken a moment to reflect on our 20 years of existence.

From its humble beginnings as a site dedicated to curating news from local and international news outlets, News24 was launched in October 1998 by a small but passionate team of pioneers, and grew to become the country’s leading digital news site, known to stay up and give its readers breaking news while its competitors were still asleep. Since then, News24 has not only evolved in its editorial offering, but has also continued to push itself with technical innovation.

Andreij Horn, the head of Media24’s digital unit 24.com, has witnessed News24’s growth from its infant stage when he joined in 2000 as the site’s first dedicated general manager, when the internet was still in its nascent stage.

"People still had dial-up modems, and that also informed how we approached things. The News24 desktop homepage today still informs some of that early thinking. It had to be as light as possible, cram in as much information as possible on every screen, instead of making it aesthetically pleasing, just make it as light and as communicative as possible. Things have changed dramatically since then," Horn says.

News24 was initially created as an aggregation site, built to be the "go-to" site for any breaking news affecting South Africans.

"They used wire copy from the beginning, very extensively, and that sort of set the DNA of News24. It had to compete with ... print products, and the only place that it could compete with them was breaking news and beating them to it."

Aggregation

This was done by a handful of content producers and techies, with the help of copy from Media24’s Afrikaans print publications, which would be translated into English, as well as copy from the SA Press Association and international agencies.

"And then they built an exceptionally strong team of content producers that aggregated, from just sitting there listening to every radio station, monitoring every TV channel and looking at every other website. They were exceptional at taking something that somebody else broke, and quickly transforming it by getting new quotes and adding to it and breaking the news. So they established themselves and the brand essence of what News24 is now, by having to compete with strong print brands actually," Horn says.

Fast forward 10 years on and the site was still an industry leader when 24.com’s Infrastructure Architect Giulio di Giannatale joined in 2008.

At the time, News24 was regarded as the site that would stay up while its competitors were sleeping, he says.

"Any big event or breaking news that would actually help people in their day-to-day stuff would break on News24, so if there was a warning out that there was bad weather coming, people actually reacted to it. If there was a really big event, some of our competitors might not have stayed up for the day, but we generally stayed up, with a lot of hard work [and] some long hours."

News24’s reach was larger than any other local site at the time, which meant that any glitches they encountered had to be dealt with on the go, says Di Giannatale.

'At some stage we found our recipe'

"We didn’t know what scale we were going to grow to. I think it surprised a lot of us. You think you have a high load (of users) and everything is going well, and then something happens in the news and the next minute the site goes down," he laughs, thinking back.

"And we had a lot of scale in South Africa for what we were doing, which nobody else had, so it wasn’t like you could walk out of the building and go ask somebody for help. So we were fixing problems that nobody else had before, which was really interesting. That was the exciting part of life; sometimes you had 72-hour days just to get through a breaking story, but that was part of the fun. It was interesting growing up with the brand."

Over time, the tech team found its rhythm, and today the site attracts more than 500 000 daily unique browsers and millions of pageviews in a month.

"At some stage we found our recipe, the secret sauce which we still keep secret today. But now we’re pretty comfortable, on big days we handle the load but we still get pretty nervous, but it generally goes smoothly," Di Giannatale says.

In 2015, shortly after the closure of one of its major suppliers of content - the SA Press Association - News24 made a big move and decided to invest in a team of reporters, moving away from solely being an aggregation site to creating its own original content.

'By far the best news service in South Africa'

Retired Media24 CEO Esmaré Weideman oversaw this process and welcomed it.

"Ten years ago, News24 was… seen as an aggregator, and I think many people saw it as cheap and nasty... over the years I believe News24 has become the most credible, digital news site in South Africa and it reflects in the number of people who actually go onto that site, not once a day, but 10 times a day. I also think a lot has happened on News24 in terms of analysis and it really has got some of the best commentators… who use this massive platform to get important analysis out to South Africans."

On the tech front, she says technical innovation has also been invested in.

"The investment that has gone into really good algorithms, really good tech, and the investment that has gone into engineers. Engineers nowadays are as important as your news reporters. I think it is by far the best news service in South Africa. I think it has moved very strongly from being a web-based app to being a mobile-first news operation."

News24’s publisher TinaShe Makwande believes that this investment is a testament to News24 having a better understanding of its audience and what they want.

"Our audiences trust us, they believe in our reporting, they believe in our product, but how do we make sure that we remain relevant for them going into the future? And that’s why you find that we’ve made this investment into things like artificial intelligence and machine learning and investigative reporting, which allow us to tap into the different ways people consume content.

"It’s one thing to produce content, it’s another thing to understand user behaviours and consumer behaviours. As a publisher, and for a number of our journalists, it is very important that we get to know our audiences. At the end of the day, I think the product should speak to the consumers, it should be a consumer-centric product. So it shouldn’t be what we are pushing out into the world, but it should be the world telling us what it wants," Makwande says.

No comment

Shortly before News24’s editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson joined the team in 2016, another major decision was taken to close down the comments section, following international trends and years of moderation challenges.

Basson still believes it was the right decision.

"At the time, there were issues around the comment section at News24, which became a bit of a cesspit for racists and any kind of phobes. People would literally start fighting, whether the article was about a salad recipe for Christmas, it would degenerate into a racial fight very quickly. And the trolls, who now find their oxygen on social media, used to dominate that comment space below our articles."

Although the decision received mixed reactions from loyal News24 readers at the time, with some still calling for it to be reopened, Basson believes that the brand is still trusted and loved and isn’t looking back.

Read: Farewell to comments: Why we are making a change

"Trust is specifically important. You need your readers to trust you; you have to get it right. Obviously, you will sometimes make mistakes and then we’ll have to quickly apologise and admit our mistakes, but I think News24 is stronger than it’s ever been.

Read more on:    news24  |  good news  |  media
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