When News24 introduces its subscription service, it will be joining the ranks of some of the world’s most respected titles in asking its readers to support its mission: consistent reporting and the relentless pursuit of truth, writes Pieter du Toit.
On any given day in News24's newsrooms in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, journalists and news editors deal with hundreds of complex stories every hour. Decisions need to be taken quickly, resources allocated, and coverage of unfolding events executed efficiently and intelligently.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa in March this year took the unprecedented step of announcing a nationwide lockdown after the novel coronavirus made landfall in South Africa, News24's team of journalists, comment writers, production staff and engineers clicked into gear and followed a now well-established pattern of covering major, breaking news: getting the basics out quickly and accurately, explaining the impact of events succinctly and clearly and considering the decision-making process and its long-term repercussions.
Our readers have responded, and our readership during this time has nearly doubled, helping the news platform establish itself as the most trusted source of news in the country. It is clear that in times of uncertainty and flux, readers revert to trusted mastheads, trusted platforms and journalists to help them navigate an often opaque world.
A broken business model
The news environment over the last decade has changed dramatically, and we haven't yet reached the plateau where the business model that underpins independent journalism is stable enough to ensure longevity and sustainability. Newspapers, the traditional bastion of the free press, have been forced to rethink and redesign their whole operation, necessitated by the loss of advertising income and shrinking circulation.
A decade and more ago, newspapers made the decision to replicate what was published in ink on paper on websites. Part of the reasoning was that the internet was going to become the marketplace of the future, and every news organisation with clout had to establish a beachhead there.
Consumers who were early adopters of digital media had a field day - they could enjoy the content of a range of quality news outlets gratis and for free. From local newspapers like The Star, Sowetan and Beeld, to the New York Times and the Telegraph - news junkies could fire up Netscape Navigator and indulge in the best journalism from across the globe for the price of a Telkom line and a dial-up modem.
But at around the same time the traditional business model which ensured well-resourced and experienced newsrooms - and the model that made a handsome profit for its proprietors - exploded. Advertising rands started disappearing from newspapers, never to reappear on the digital side, as the conventional wisdom held.
Establishing a foothold
Up until then news outlets' main source of revenue was advertising, with copy sales providing a healthy secondary stream. But with advertising evaporating and circulation in terminal decline, it led to a wholesale crisis in the print news business, with revenue tanking and the downsizing and restructuring of newsrooms becoming a regular seasonal event.
News24 was launched in October 1998, and according to former publisher Cobus Heyl, for content, almost the first decade of its existence consisted of about 70% wire copy (from the now-defunct South African Press Association, or Sapa), 20% translated newspaper content (mainly from Media24's Afrikaans titles) and about 10% original stories.
It has over its almost 22 years of existence firmly established itself as the primary source of breaking news in South Africa, and has been at the forefront of trying to build a sustainable business model which would enable journalism to thrive.
However, like the crisis in which ink-and-paper news outlets increasingly found themselves in during the second decade of the 21st century, digital-only news outlets were equally unable to engineer the breakthrough which - it was hoped - would transplant the enormous journalistic operations from print to digital.
Subscription services - or paywalls - have in recent times become a mainstay of the world, and indeed South Africa's, leading news platforms. Globally serious consumers - or purveyors - of news have come to realise the importance of paying for news on digital platforms.
Not only is it a continuation for many of a lifelong habit of arming themselves with the most reliable and accurate sources of quality information they can possibly acquire, but also a realisation that strong democracies need a dynamic and vibrant media.
The world's leading news brands have all made the leap to subscription services, and the most successful of these have used the support of their reader base to make themselves even more independent of the vagaries of corporate advertising, which was previously the lifeblood of the business of journalism.
The emergence of paywalls
The Wall Street Journal is widely regarded as being the pioneers, with their online offering only available for free for a few months in 1997 before their paywall went up.
London's Financial Times followed suit in 2002, and the world's most revered business title has gone on to build the most successful paywalls in the world, with a sophisticated digital operation which spans bureaux from Hong Kong, to London and New York. The FT is no longer just a newspaper, and last year surpassed one million paying subscribers, with digital subscriptions accounting for 75% of all subscriptions.
But the gold standard in the international news business continues to be the New York Times, who last month reported that it now counts more than five million subscribers to its digital product worldwide and six million subscribers in total. The venerable old title, or the "grey lady" as it is known, is racing towards a position where its reliance on advertising will be minimal and its main source of revenue will be readers' support - subscriptions.
It launched its paywall in 2011, a year after Britain's most respected title, The Times, launched a paywall of its own. Since then other sources of quality journalism, like The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The Spectator, have all asked their readers to pay for news online - and all have built a loyal following anchored in fair and thorough reporting.
In South Africa, the uptake has been slow. Business Day and the Sunday Times launched first attempts at a paywall in 2013 and 2014 to varying degrees of success, although some papers in the group that was then known as Avusa started experimenting with paywalls in 2010.
Media24 launched Netwerk24, its Afrikaans paywalled site in 2016, bringing together all its newspaper and magazine content in one place. And in 2018, Times Select, a daily paid-for product produced by the editorial team that compiles the Sunday Times and TimesLive, was launched. Moneyweb, the financial and economics news service, has been behind a paywall for years.
A new challenge
News24 changed strategy in 2015 and 2016 and the site weaned itself from its reliance on wire copy (Sapa closed down in 2015) and aggregations, which entails reproducing information gathered from other sources, to producing original, quality content.
And it proved its mettle over the last years, with its team of journalists regularly scooping national writing awards, including the prestigious Taco Kuiper Award for investigative journalism. News24 played a central role in exposing the excesses of the state capture years and continues to deploy its team of journalists in Cape Town, Johannesburg and elsewhere to keep its millions of readers informed on the ravages of Covid-19.
The introduction of a paywall for News24 might come as a shock to the system for many readers, some of whom have trusted it as their primary news source since before the turn of the century, but the demands of accurate and independent news are now such that it too needs the financial support of its readers.
Newsgathering and dissemination is an expensive business. It takes money - and a lot of it - to employ knowledgeable journalists, to create the infrastructure to enable them to get behind the truth and to report fairly and accurately about events that affects the lives of South Africans.
News24 is engaged in a singular mission: to be consistent in its reporting and relentless in its pursuit of truth.
Subscribing will help us execute this mandate on behalf of our readers. And we would rather be beholden to them than to any other interest groups.