eNCA has launched its long-awaited online news site. A year in the making, eNCA.com is quite different from other South African current affairs websites with its strong video content and distinctive look and feel.
“We spent a long time thinking about the design of the site, which is quite different from the major incumbent news sites in South Africa,” says Timothy Spira, general manager of the online division. “The approach is very visual, with big pictures illustrating the main stories, which is reflective of our heritage as a TV broadcaster. We wanted a simple navigational structure that would allow us to present a vast quantity and depth of stories without overwhelming users with complex sub-menus and pages that scroll forever.”
eNCA group head of news, Patrick Conroy, is delighted with the site. “We now have a complete news offering. We’re on television streamed globally around the world, and now have a compelling online and mobile offering. Previously, broadband constraints prevented us from delivering a video-rich web experience, but South Africa is catching up quickly,” he says.
Spira says something he’s particularly happy with is a feature called ‘news stream’, which took its design cues more from social media than other websites. “Basically it’s a little button that always sits on the bottom right of the screen and a counter that ticks up every time a new story drops on the site. So users can constantly see what’s new and, if it interests them, click directly through. They can also view all stories, videos, discussions, blogs and other elements in chronological order, either unfiltered or filtered by site section,” he says.
The website offers a wide range of local, African and international content, as well as the staples such as weather, sports, business and lifestyle stories. The news channel’s anchors and reporters have space to blog, and readers can interact with them via discussion forums. Popular weatherman Derek van Dam is there, as is Third Degree presenter and veteran newswoman Debora Patta and political commentator, Justice Malala.
It’s been a complex undertaking, and one that Spira says couldn’t have been done without the right team.
“By far the biggest challenge was finding the right calibre of people. I knew that we couldn’t afford to get that wrong. I must have gone through thousands of CVs and sat in on scores of interviews and I am really happy with the team we’ve assembled,” he says.
Other challenges were technical and infrastructural, to be expected in the quest to develop “a video-intensive site that could deliver an acceptable experience across multiple devices and the wide spread of bandwidth constraints that we have in this country”, Spira says.
The multimedia experience isn’t hampered by buffering, with video uploading seamlessly, most of the time. “We have partnered with a US-based company that specialises in video delivery,” Spira explains. “They have servers distributed across the globe so you access the video from the one that’s closest to you, and they also deliver a version of the video file that is optimised for your device and bandwidth constraints.”
Spira says broadcast and online integration was critical from the outset. “We’ll be working on ways to steer people from TV content towards the website and vice versa. The great thing about TV news and online news is that the two are complementary in that people do not necessarily consumer one at the expense of the other. The increasing popularity of second-screening’, or watching TV while interacting with a connected device, has been well documented. So you’ll see this reflected in our on-air programming, with boards between programming and crawlers at the bottom of the screen highlighting the stories we’re covering online. News anchors are also now punting content or discussions available on the website that add context to the stories covered on air,” he says.
While the site runs video that is also screened on the television channel, there is also a dedicated online newsroom that produces content for the web. “The quid pro quo for TV is that everything we produce for online must be available for broadcast, and we’ve already had a few online stories run on-air. The most recent example was our exclusive footage of the Smithfield police brutality incident, which eNCA ran in part and then directed viewers to the website to see the whole clip and join in a related discussion,” Spira says.
At this point, the site doesn’t feature any advertising, begging the question as to whether eNCA was following the BBC model. And how the site will be funded. Spira says this is temporary. “Watch this space. We will be courting advertisers with tradition al display advertising as well as online video advertising, which, internationally, is actually the fastest-growing category of online advertising at the moment.”
The site, running in Beta at the moment, is by no means complete. “There are a whole raft of new features in the pipeline and our plan is to introduce these on a regular basis to ensure that user experience keeps getting better,” Spira says.
“We also have a panel of beta testers who have volunteered their time to give us feedback. They’ve picked up lots of little bugs, which we’re addressing, and they’ve also come up with some great ideas about how we can improve the functionality of the site,” he says.
But for the moment, he’s relishing the positive feedback and the fact that his team “hit the ground running editorially”. He says the way the team pulled together “was amazing.
Spira says the development team designed and built the site entirely in-house on a freely available open-source platform. “While we looked at some very impressive outsource options, we decided quite early on that having our own platform would enable us to be more nimble in responding to user requirements and constantly developing new features.”