ANALYSIS | 'Burn the ships' and start afresh: A new era for journalism?

News24 parent company Media24's headquarters in Cape Town.
News24 parent company Media24's headquarters in Cape Town.
Duncan Alfreds, News24
  • News24 will launch digital subscriptions at R75 per month on 8 August.
  • It comes at a time when publishers have seen massive audience growth during Covid-19, proof that when people absolutely have to have credible information, they know where trusted news publishers are.
  • Brands that went the subscription route years ago, withstood the shock of Covid-19 better than anyone else and were now better placed for the next few years.

News24 on Thursday officially announced it will be launching a digital subscription service on 8 August. It will cost R75 per month to subscribe and with it will come a host of features and reader benefits.

The reaction from readers to this news has been overwhelmingly positive. Hundreds wrote in to pledge their support after editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson revealed for the first time the decision to take this step to help sustain the future of journalism in South Africa.

READ | Future of News Summit: Paywalls won't save journalism - good journalism will

The impetus for the decision has of course been highlighted by mass retrenchments and salary cuts at almost all major local media companies due to the impact of Covid-19. With consumers feeling the pinch of the national lockdown, advertising revenue has dropped and sales have declined, kicking the search for a new business model for news into the next gear.

Most local and international media institutions seem to be in agreement: it's time to "burn the ships" and start afresh, as venture capitalist Michael Jordaan said on Thursday during the digital Future of News Summit, organised by News24.

The vexing question, however, remains: what do we establish in the place of the old model, which used advertising income to subsidise quality journalism for the reader? And, in a world where a news story is a dime a dozen, do we dare charge readers money for journalism if they can read the news elsewhere for free?

Many media companies have had to learn by trial and devastating error that there is no easy answer to this question. Around the world, publishers have introduced digital subscriptions with varying levels of success.

The most successful publishers, according to research, are obsessively customer-centric, data-informed and have invested in quality news gathering and storytelling.

"They truly understand their audiences and the needs of their communities," Yasmin Namini, who led the strategic development and launch of the New York Times' digital subscription pay model in 2011, told News24.

"Readers today will support their local, regional and/or national newspapers with a paid digital subscription if what they are being asked to pay for is high quality, relevant and distinctive news and information delivered in an outstanding and engaging digital user experience."

Of course timing matters, and now may be as good a time as ever to start charging for online news. As Nic Newman, the Reuters Institute's senior research associate said: "Journalism matters and is in demand again."

The massive audience growth seen by publishers during Covid-19 is proof that when people absolutely have to have credible information, they know where trusted news publishers are.

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"It is, perhaps, an accident of history that the Covid-19 audience surge occurred as publishers are shifting to a subscription-based business model," said Earl Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of the International News Media Association (INMA).

"I think loyalty and trust have become dual currencies for publishers. When the chips were down, readers turned to the publishers they know and trust. They flirted on Facebook when things didn't matter, but turned to you when things did matter."

But that only got them in the door. The trick is to get them to stay.

"In all of INMA's research on loyalty, retention, churn and habit, we estimate that highly differentiating content – which publishers are only now beginning to recognise they didn't have – is only 50% of the value proposition to readers," said Wilkinson. "The other 50% involves community, convenience and cause. That is the loyalty loop. Content only forms a semi-circle."

The flipside of the coin is that right now, the pandemic has hit most South Africans hard, and many would be cautious to commit money to something like a news subscription, despite needing credible information more than ever. It raises ethical questions about whether public service journalism, which is essential for healthy, democratic societies, should not be free for everyone to access.

NEW ERA | News24 launches digital subscriptions at R75/month. Breaking news remains free

For this reason, some publishers are seeking alternative models to the subscriber model, including philanthropic endowments and public trusts, to keep providing information that enable citizens to make informed choices about the way they live their lives and who they choose to govern.

"The simple truth is that it costs money to produce journalism and a lot more to produce investigative and quality journalism," said Cherilyn Ireton, executive director of the World Editors Forum. "So there has to be a way to pay for the journalism if news organisations are to meet their mandate.

"Subscriptions are an obvious route. Netflix and M-Net do it, and not many baulk at paying, because they value the content. Subscriptions seem to work best for niche content and news, comment and analysis that are not readily available elsewhere. That's why Netwerk24 and BusinessLive have been successful. News24 was a digital pioneer – focusing on growing a big audience and attracting digital advertising. Now it has to find a way to monetise its content."

One thing is clear, the news brands, both big and small, who went the subscription route years ago, withstood the shock of Covid-19 far better than anyone else and were now better placed for the next few years.

"Advertising will come back, even if not at the level publishers have enjoyed. So, over the next few years, there will be a need to reinvent the revenue side of the publishing business and address the trust problem that exists in many markets," Ireton said.

"News sites, regardless of size, succeed through good, credible journalism and relationship with their readers, and this will become increasingly important."

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