The 2019 Digital Media Africa conference offered brainstorming sessions, idea sharing opportunities and networking periods.
With a clear, primary focus on news publishing and specifically monetising this form of media (something which has challenged many publishers), the gathering offered some fascinating insights.
Here are some of the takeaways from the most important sessions at the gathering:
News publishing remains resilient
As an introduction, one of the very first presentations was given by François Nel, editor of the World Press Trends report for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA).
He unpacked why news publishing in general remains resilient and touched on some of the key trends that publishers need to take note of. With digital news publishing now in its element alongside traditional news publishing, Nel commented, “Digital is in fact mostly mobile. In terms of digital audiences, recognising that they come from mobile and want to consume mobile content is one of the biggest shifts that we continue to see.”
He added, “In order to have a subscription-based model you have to have quality content and that is a big shift for publishers, because we have had often a very-much production-orientated mindset where we produce news as a surrounding for advertising. With us moving to a subscription model, we need to produce news that is not only of interest to people, but which is relevant to them and on which they become reliant … There’s a big thrust to quality and that’s a challenge, as it takes time, investment and talent.”
He stresses that news environments need to ensure that they are structured and operate in such a way as to not only attract, but also retain top talent.
The state of the public broadcaster
Phathiswa Magopeni, head of news at SABC, took part in a panel discussion, which also featured Pamella Makotsi Sittoni, executive editor of The Daily Nation for Nation Media Group in Kenya and Kass Naidoo, founder of gsport4girls.
She gave an update on the state of the broadcaster’s newsroom, and how she sees the division taking itself forward. She wants to see more invested in news services for other South African languages besides English, as well as a change in the funding model to secure the news broadcaster’s future.
News products that readers are willing to pay for
A case study presented by Ole Werring, chief product officer of Norwegian media house Amedia AS, gave some fascinating insights into new techniques they’ve developed in attempts to increase readership and revenue.
Firstly, they have paired live sports feeds with their online sites, meaning that any reader who subscribes to a site (paying a minimal fee) will have access to not only news content on that site, but also their favourite sports.
“We wanted to test something new and we looked at the old broadcasters earning positions and what had changed. We were looking for a new product for video, and we saw 10 to 20 years ago, the broadcasters were showing a range of sport and the lower divisions, but the later years everything was only the elite and top leagues … People in local societies are fond of their local teams and they want to see them play, but not everyone can get to the arenas. We thought this would be the type of content that mostly appeals to our readers and we wanted to make it easier for them to access it,” explains Werring.
The offering has grown from 250 streams a year to more than 6 000 in 2019, and includes a wide variety of sports.
Secondly, they are using algorithms and technology to profile their readers in order to automate article placement on their sites. This in order to give readers the content they are most interested in and is most relevant to them.
Perfecting the paywall strategy
A South African media company that has gone the route of paywalls for its news websites is Tiso Blackstar Group. The company’s head of digital, Lisa MacLeod says the paywall approach has been very successful, combined with its approach to content.
“Our strategy is to have a string of premium content that we repurpose for the whole group. So all of the products that have a premium aspect to them can use the content … We’re trying to make the most of the content we are paying for, the high level content. But only where it is appropriate … We’re making sure that all of our free content is being reused by all of the sites that we own, and that our premium content is being reused in a premium way,” she says.
News via WhatsApp
A case study of an interesting news delivery mechanism was delivered by Nigel Mugamu, founder of 263Chat in Zimbabwe.
His company identified WhatsApp as a very popular platform among Zimbabweans (to the extent that when people ask their family members for new phones they specifically ask for one with WhatsApp), so created an e-newsletter which is sent out via it.
“To combat fake news and to distribute content, we decided to create what we call an electronic paper. It goes out daily, Monday to Friday, at the end of the day, so you get today’s news today,” Mugamu adds.
The service currently has over 35 000 recipients, and future plans include expansion of a similar offering into other African markets, as well as news distribution via SMS.
Facebook’s news tab
A piece of news which has made headlines around the world is the introduction of Facebook’s news tab. More information was revealed about the offering, as well as the social media giants interactions with publishers, during a panel discussion (chaired by Tiso Blackstar’s head of digital Lisa MacLeod) which included Nunu Ntshingila, head of Africa for Facebook, and Jesper Doub, director of news partnerships for EMEA at Facebook.
Responding to a question around the sometimes rocky relationship between Facebook and publishers (with many of the latter accusing the former of eating into their digital advertising revenue), Doub commented, “The biggest reason why a lot of publishers turn into becoming sceptic or even hostile towards Facebook, is the fact that Facebook over the years has been promising publishers solutions, revenues, reaches, and then very often disappointing them and not delivering on promises and all of a sudden changing course without announcing it or explaining it and without allowing partners to adapt to it.”
Facebook continues to grow its penetration across Africa, currently recording around 158 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa using the social media platform every month. According to Ntshingila, the company is focusing on three areas: connectivity (partnering to make sure that more people are coming online with a reliable, affordable connection), building a robust eco-system of developers, and building systems for businesses (both large and small) to grow.
Advantages of membership funding
A year ago, Daily Maverick launched a membership model of funding, which has proven to be very successful. The media house’s product and technology head Rowan Polovin explains, “We could see the signs in terms of advertising drying up, with Facebook and Google capturing a lot of the market. We were looking at other ways to make our audience more engaged and we found out that some kind of membership system where readers could actually make a contribution to the cause could be a potential solution.”
After much research and testing, the site launched a membership model, different from a subscription model in the sense that readers don’t pay for specific services and benefits, but rather give of their own free will to help the cause of journalism.
“The benefits members get are supporting the news in South Africa, upholding the highest quality investigative journalism in the country and promoting freedom of information and democracy in this country,” he adds.
Daily Maverick is aiming to grow its membership by 500 people a month. On launch day, 200 members signed up and that number is now approaching 8 000 in total. 30% of Daily Maverick’s payroll is funded by these membership fees, along with 18% of the media house’s running costs.
Members are incentivised to give over R150 a month, by receiving R150 worth of Uber vouchers in return, but Polovin says this is not the reason that people become members, only being a side benefit.
This move created a hybrid funding model for the media house, which also receives donations and revenue from sponsored content and advertising.
The news publishing landscape
Speaking to The Media Online after the conference, WAN-IFRA CEO Vincent Peyrègne stressed, “Publishers need to reconsider the way they work together … Scale is the mantra in digital, so if we want to really survive from a business perspective publishers need to scale and rethink their audiences.”
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