With few exceptions, South African media organisations have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. To be fair, technology has turned everything from their income and distribution models to their staffing and newsgathering methods on their collective heads.
But it’s only now, a decade-and-a-half after the commercial Internet – the biggest disrupter to any business since the industrial revolution – went mainstream that the media sector is accelerating its presence in this space.
It’s a situation mirrored across many industries as they grapple to get to grips with change brought about by the Internet.
And a topic to be tackled at the second Tech4Africa Conference that takes place at The Forum in Bryanston, Johannesburg on October 27 and 28. It brings international experience and perspectives to the African continent, at the same time showcasing what Africans are doing with mobile, web, digital media and other emerging technologies.
Organiser, Gareth Knight, says speakers at the Tech4Africa Conference will be talking about the Web landscape and what can be expected in the next five to 10 years. They will be looking at business and lifestyle and how people are likely to consume content that is produced and delivered via the Web.
Delegates will get firsthand knowledge from keynote speakers like African technologist superstar Herman Chinery-Hesse from Ghana and Josh Spear, a world-class digital marketing strategist.
Knight says the media industry has been slow to move into the digital space although the pace does seem to be picking up.
“Older people, particularly in media organisations, and companies across all sectors of industry, are still uncomfortable with the march of technology. Many of these people are in senior decision-making positions and are resistant to change,” he says.
“We have seen the role that technology can play in informing the mainstream media, for instance the Arab Spring where Twitter was used to spread the news of change and in the recent London riots where BlackBerry Messenger was used to co-ordinate activities.”
Knight says Twitter doesn’t pose a threat to media organisations because information that is tweeted is unverified and often unreliable or even deliberately misleading.
“There is no filter on it. Most bloggers too, don’t have the skills or the training to write in a way that is acceptable to a large audience.”
He says journalism will remain a profession no matter how the delivery mechanism changes.
“Young journalists hoping to build a career, however, will need to employ a greater range of technology skills than in the past. Tools are cheap and available so journalists will also need to be able to shoot video, stills, and record audio. In some cases, the diversification of skills may reduce the quality of the output, but cream rises to the top and talented multi-taskers will be able to do extraordinarily well.
“There is a lot of rubbish on the Web; which is a crowded and unreliable place. Skilled professionals in any sector – and the media is no exception – are really valuable to any organisation with an online presence – and these days that’s everyone,” says Knight.
“In the medium term there is still likely to be space for big glossy magazines but they will become more segmented and every print publication will have a digital version.
“In five years, nearly every consumer will have a handheld device that will be enable them to do just about anything from making and accepting payments to reading and/or watching the news and monitoring it in real time,” he says.
Entrepreneurs, some with traditional media skills, have made good use of the opportunities that the web presents.
As South Africa’s large media houses slowly figure out how to move their businesses from print to digital, entrepreneurs using web tools are taking on established media organisations at their own game.
One example is Duncan McLeod, who grew up in old school media and who was a senior editor at the Financial Mail. Two years ago, he spotted an opportunity to make use of his experience and reputation by starting TechCentral, a technology news site on the Web. He left the Financial Mail and set out to persuade the country’s largest telecommunications firms to advertise with him for a year. They did; and the country’s best technology journalist now works for himself and is very successful. His is the go-to source ahead of all others locally for technology news.
But established or traditional media are upping their game in the online space. One of the first on the Internet was the M&G Online which launched an email edition in 1994 and followed this up with a web presence in 1995. It was one of the first news organisations in the world on the Internet.
Veteran journalist and analyst, Arthur Goldstuck, says most media houses have good online intentions but that there’s a disconnect between the new electronic environment and print operations.
“They’re not holding back with their online activities but they’re not necessarily successful in the new environment. That said, compared to where they were just two years ago, they’re significantly further ahead,” he says.
In the old days, news websites were one of the fastest ways for publishers to burn money. Now, as consumer habits change, so are the economics.
Business Day editor, Peter Bruce says business content is a saleable commodity. “Our iPhone and iPad apps are central to what we’re doing and are free at the moment. We’ve incorporated the I-Net Bridge newsroom into Business Day, so it’s become a combination news agency, digital business and newspaper. We are now working out how to charge for content. By March next year, business readers will be able to buy packages and subscribe to digital or print editions or a mixture of both.
“We are already making quite good money from our online activities and our website is profitable. Like most large media houses, we bring content and reputation to the table; a combination that is much sought after by readers.”
Knight says Tech4Africa delegates will have access to the best practitioners in Africa and the world who will provide inspiration, guidance, case studies, success stories and ultimately their own experience.
“Africans don’t need to travel the world to gain this level of understanding and exposure – we’ll bring it to their doorstep.”