It was late on a Saturday in 1978 when I went down to the works of the Sunday Times to see what was happening on that night, the first time the paper was being fully produced in cold type, using the new mainframe-driven Atex editing system.
Normally at that time on a Saturday an entire floor of the works of the old SAAN building at 171 Main Street in Joburg would have been a hive of activity, with lino operators skilfully hammering on the keyboards of machines that hadn’t changed much for decades, as they set the type for the next day’s paper, line by line, back-to-front, in lead. The area normally smelt of molten metal and was hot as Hades as the operators worked feverishly turning stories from typewriter-written pages into lead type as part of the age-old pre-print process.
But what struck me most was the absolute quiet, and where there should have been a cacophony of noisy machines and men shouting to communicate above the racket, a strange stillness had descended as the machines slumbered in ghostly silence.
Those noisy brutes, with a few changes over the years, dated back to the Industrial Revolution, and were the industry standard for newspapers, magazines and posters from the late 19th Century to the 1970s, when they were largely replaced by computer typesetting – cold type – and offset litho printing.
To this day I can still clearly remember that night and thinking, “So this is it, the end of the hot metal era… things will never be the same again in the world of newspapers.”
Innovations came thick and fast in the succeeding years as the face of newspaper production and the way we did journalism changed. New innovations came and old ones – like the telex and drum machines used to transmit photos – fell by the wayside to be replaced by fax machines and then email. Laptops, mobile phones, 3G and new tech arrived, also changing the way we worked.
Looking back today, when the internet, apps and smartphones, far more powerful than the earlier, much bigger computers, are ubiquitous, we are again at a crossroads where things will never be the same again for newspapers.
Soon it will no longer good enough for a reporter to be skilled in only one media, be it print, TV or radio, online. South African journalists armed with a smartphone, tablet or simple flipcam will have to be able to work across different platforms, as increasingly their colleagues in the USA, the UK and Europe must. Tweeting, live blogging and uploading to Facebook while out on assignment is already a reality in a few local newsrooms. Journalists will also need to shoot basic video and be able to edit it, prepare audio reports, write tight pieces for online – and then still produce something fresh and different for the next print edition or news bulletin.
Some, like City Press, the Mail & Guardian and Business Day are already well on their way to becoming web first publications, where the reporting is increasingly becoming platform agnostic and content, with careful pre-planning, is leveraged across multiple platforms and different sized screens.
Soon, young journalists looking for work will have to prove they are adept at working across these multiple platforms if they are to be hired – and fortunately most of the journalism schools have changed their curriculums to ensure their graduates are fit-for-purpose for this new reality.
The model of newspapers’ revenue coming largely from two main sources – selling advertising and selling copies – is broken, even if some still hang on to it and milk it for all it’s worth, while not experimenting and or investing nearly enough for a future that is already a reality in many developed countries, all the while fooling themselves that South Africa is somehow different.
Today, when we sell our papers, thanks to the internet and social media, we are competing with publications not just in the same city or elsewhere in SA, but in far-flung countries.
I often hear newspapermen and women lament how it is still print making the hard cash and digital earns very little. But the online offerings of too many are still nothing more than a dumping ground for content that has appeared in their papers, padded out with Sapa and other agency copy.
Google, which began life as a search engine, is now the world’s biggest seller of advertising, as this picture I took at the World Editors Forum in Bangkok in 2013, during a presentation on the bloodbath in newspaper ad sales in America, graphically illustrates.
All over the world there is much innovation happening in the search for the Holy Grail, a new digital model that will generate new sources of income to arrest declining print revenues. There are no clear answers, but the hard fact is that you can’t play if you’re not in the game, and those who ignore this could end up paying a heavy price down the line when the music finally stops for print as we know it.
Included in this Debrief is an excellent piece by Mark Potts, founder and CEO of news-aggregation site NEWSPEG, on a remarkably prescient memo written in 1992 by (then) newly-appointed The Washington Post managing editor, Robert G. Kaiser, after he attended a conference on the future of digital media. Kaiser saw the future clearly and much of what he wrote about then has come true today.
Editor Ferial Haffajee writes about how her paper, City Press, is experimenting as it moves rapidly into digital first publishing. Her publication is already a six-day online news operation, with a strong social media presence, and relies on its own staff rather than agencies for content. On the seventh day City Press produces a strong print Sunday edition that still generates most of the revenue.
The Citizen publisher Eureka Zandberg tackles the issue of how newspapers are struggling to “remain relevant in today’s volatile media environment without facing bankruptcy”.
With that in mind, many publications around the world – and some in SA – are exploring so-called “native advertising” as a way of bringing in new revenue. But Kirk Cheyfitz, CEO and chief storyteller of Story Worldwide, explains why he believes this kind of advertising “is a dead end – a passing fad in the slow demise of traditional advertising”.
There is also the burning issue of paywalls, ranging in South Africa from the wide open offering of Daily Maverick to the behind-a-paywall paid online subscription strategies adopted by both Business Day and The Sunday Times and, more recently, Beeld and Die Burger.
Arthur Goldstuck, who heads up research organisation World Wide Worx, takes a look at paywalls – which he says are the way of ‘the dinosaur’ – vs. the digital tsunami.
I hope we will stimulate debate around the issue that will see much innovation, successes and failures as newspapers in South Africa search for a stable future that goes beyond just print.
At the moment Google, more than anyone, is eating newspapers’ lunch and unless we find a way to fight back, they could soon be scoffing down our dessert too.
Raymond Joseph (@rayjoe) / Guest editor Newspaper Debrief
Many thanks to our sponsor, The Citizen newspaper.
IMAGE: The Makings of a Modern Newspaper- the Production of ‘the Daily Mail’ in Wartime, London, UK, 1944 / Wikimedia
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