The advent of the internet was initially good news for newspapers. One by one newspapers around the world scurried to put their product online to show that this new kid on the block, the world wide web, is an interesting gadget that each respectable newspaper should have in its armoury to show how it can keep up with the times.
Online versions of newspapers jumped up everywhere, with copy being slapped straight from the printed version to the online version, which was then seen as a nice-to-have. Then came news websites, where newspapers would update copy from their printed editions with the best that the wires had to offer, putting more pressure on journalists in the newsroom to ensure that tomorrow’s follow-up has the freshest angle.
Early this year came the meltdown, however. News of the 100 retrenchments in the “once-immune”, as Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Tribune put it, newsroom of The New York Times spread like the ILOVE-YOU virus to personal computers, laptops and Blackberrys of media junkies all over the world.
The “nice-to-have” internet had finally bitten the hand that fed it and newsrooms worldwide had to pay the price. Soon various other American dailies followed suit… Rosenthal’s Tribune had to, together with the Los Angeles Times, The Sun in Baltimore and others, lay off significant numbers of staff in order to stay afloat in the difficult times brought about by the slump in the economy, coupled with the rise in the popularity of the internet.
At the LA Times, the web and print departments were merged into one operation with a single budget. Says editor, Russ Stanton: “We’re great about putting out a paper; we’re getting a lot better at putting up a website.”
Does this spell doom for the local newspaper industry? The economic and social realities in South Africa save us from the anxiety that is gripping the American newspaper industry, but it does not mean we are completely out of the woods. At best we have time to prepare for the reality that printed newspapers will have to fight hard and smart to keep their place as a key daily information resource.
The slow pace at which Telkom has developed its internet broadband offering and the great expense that goes with it, has ensured that the number of readers who swopped their early morning paper for the online version has not skyrocketed the way it has in the United States. The US has 237-million internet users at a penetration level of 71.5%, while South Africa lags behind with 5.1-million internet users which equates to a penetration level of 11.6%.
Income levels in developed countries are also much higher and this has caused the slower pace of migration to digital media consumption in South Africa than in the developed world. The popularity of news websites has grown at a lightening speed, but it is not yet presenting a threat to the newspaper in its current printed form, says Henry Jeffreys, editor-inchief of the regional daily Die Burger.
“In South Africa we have a bit more leniency afforded to us by the fact that broadband internet is not as accessible here as it is in the United States. That gives us some space to prepare ourselves properly for the onslaught when it comes.”
The Cape Town newsroom of Die Burger is fully equipped with a sound studio, editing equipment, and specially trained multimedia journalists join colleagues on stories to capture footage that is uploaded to the newspaper’s website, href=”http://www.dieburger.com/” target=_blank mce_href=”http://www.dieburger.com/”http://www.dieburger.com/.
Despite millions of rands being poured into multimedia to make websites more exciting, few newspapers are feeling the financial benefits of it yet. Jeffreys says the percentage that their web-based activities contribute to the newspaper’s overall income is negligible, but it remains important to continue with the investment to ensure that, when the internet becomes more affordable and accessible to South Africa, the newspaper will be ready to provide cyber-readers with crisp copy, state-of-the-art video footage and an overall positive experience.
Does this mean the end of the printed newspaper? “Most things in life do have a span Ã¢Â€Â“ some more limited than others, but I do believe that newspapers will still be around for a lengthy time provided we are resourceful, innovative and adapt to the new realities of a digitised world,” says Francois Groepe, CEO of Media24.
Riaan Wolmarans, editor of Mail & Guardian Online, has a more positive outlook: “There will always be a role for newspapers. There is something about it being tactile; that you buy it and then throw it away. But the challenge is for newspapers to invent ways of staying relevant because I think in five years, South African newspapers will feel the effect of their online offerings on their overall income.”
The !_LT_EMMail & Guardian!_LT_/EM website is currently contributing 15% to the overall profit of the newspaper and Wolmarans sees that growing to about 50% in the next ten years. But there is no chance that the online version will in the medium-term future become the main focus of the newspaper. “The newspaper will, for us, remain the face of the company and at best the online division can become more integrated with the newsroom.”
In preparation for the onslaught of broadband, newspapers have to pay greater attention to layout and graphic illustrations Ã¢Â€Â“ offerings that will be difficult to replicate online, Wolmarans says.
The threat of broadband internet is good news for investigative journalism, says Jeffreys. “Newspapers will be under more pressure to break their own stories and scoops will become of vital importance because readers will have had access to the breaking news as it happens. Newspapers will have to give them something they don’t already know.”
The pressure to ensure relevancy of newspapers does not only lie with media planners and managers. News editors will expect more of journalists than ever before. At The New York Times the restructuring led to the creation of a new team of writers in Paris who will focus on ensuring that the freshest news graces the website of the NY Times and its partner, !_LT_EMInternational Herald Tribune!_LT_/EM (IHT).
Correspondents will be expected to file around the clock from wherever they are to the office in Paris, where the former NY Times bureau-in-chief for Europe, Alan Cowell, will edit the copy and put it on the website. This will ensure that time differences do not affect the flow of copy.
In South Africa, the migration to cell phones as news providers proves a more immediate threat to especially daily newspapers. Most local newspapers offer news updates via mobile phones to subscribers. “People here are used to paying for mobile services, so such a venture is profitable because service providers can make money from subscription costs as well as advertising,” says Wolmarans.
Although cell phones, due to limitations like small screens, will remain communication devices rather than sole news providers, it is a market that South African newspapers can tap into with great success, experts believe, because it can be a money-spinner but will not be seen as a threat to printed newspapers.
Although the internet is not due to elbow the traditional printed newspaper out of business in South Africa soon, newspapers will have to shift focus to scoops and design to remain the news provider of choice.
!_LT_EMMandy Rossouw cut her teeth at !_LT_/EMBeeld!_LT_EM, where she covered the Gauteng legislature, parliament, continental politics and eventually served as the foreign correspondent in London. She is currently the senior political correspondent at the!_LT_/EM Mail & Guardian!_LT_EM.!_LT_/EM
This article first appeared in The Media magazine (August 2008 edition).