The medium is not quite the message – the message is the message. But the tools to spread that message are making it a whole lot easier.
The media landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade. Tech innovation and the rise of digital news have had a deeply disruptive effect on traditional news, leading to an overwhelmingly short attention span in readers, and also, most critically, rerouting revenue to the digital media giants – who, by the way, have completely undermined trust in journalism and therefore in its credibility.
The good news though, is that the playing field is finally starting to level out, with evidence of green shoots in the sector despite global economic and political turbulence. While the big tech companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, et al) still dominate in terms of the attention economy and ad revenues, the demand for reliable, credible news means that journalism is by no means dead – and newsrooms are finding sustainable means of monetising their offerings.
South Africa’s commercial publishers have had a sustained focus on digital integration and innovation. In late February this year, News24 – which reaches between seven and eight million unique users per month across multiple devices – launched a brand new mobile app with enhanced features such as bookmarking, traffic, weather and newsletters. A new weekly newsletter, Beautiful Mzansi, joined the flagship stable, consisting of News24’s extras: Good Morning SA, Friday Briefing and ICYMI (which stands for ‘in case you missed it’). And in late May, it relaunched its website too.
New business models
It’s not just the big, commercial media houses that have cause for optimism: smaller independent publications, particularly investigative news sites, have reported stronger revenues worldwide, thanks to new business models that rely more readily on subscription and membership than advertising – much like local success story Daily Maverick.
The online news portal re-examined its business model when a commercial venture proved unsustainable, then turned to grant funding before eventually looking to the readers for long-term sustainability. Their one-third revenue model: one third from philanthropy in the form of donations and grantfunding; one third from ads, native ads and event sponsorship and one third from readers’ contributions resulted in real growth.
The independent news company celebrated its 10th year with a string of local and international awards, including Best News Publisher and Best Reader Revenue programme at the WAN-IFRA awards, and becoming co-winners of the prestigious Global Investigative Journalism Network’s (GIJN) Shining Light Investigative Journalism Awards.
The future of journalism is a key concern for most industry executives surveyed for the Kantar Trends and Prediction Report; execs claimed that while they were confident about their own company’s prospects they were much less sure about local news provision, alongside fears about declining trust and attacks on journalism by politicians.
Another change is evident in the way journalists are being trained these days. “Gone are the days we used to wait for prime time news – today, news content creation and news consumption is different,” reckons Emmanuel Yegon, co-founder and communications director at the Kenyan-based Mobile Journalism Africa.
“The smartphone has come in as a game changer: a tool for both creation and consumption of news and information. I don’t even remember the last time I sat before a television set to watch news; I follow trends and breaking news on Twitter,” he adds.
Inherent journalistic curiosity
“Advances in mobile journalism (MoJo) technology and techniques have broken down a number of financial barriers that have traditionally been a major concern for news organisations,” says Michael Salzwedel, Cape Town-based founder of media training consultancy, Social Weaver.
“Today’s journalists don’t need support from outside broadcast vans with big crews and expensive equipment; they need a mid-range smartphone, the right apps, a few days of Mojo training and, most importantly, the inherent journalistic curiosity and tenacity they were hopefully hired for in the first place. A smartphone can be used to shoot, edit and publish compelling video on the fly, and when paired with an external microphone the output quality is almost always acceptable and often impressive. “
Part of the challenge for mobile journalists in Africa, notes Yegon, lies in winning audience and public trust as a credible source of information – and overturning the perception that “only professional cameras are to be used if one is to be taken seriously”.
But, as Salzwedel points out: “The technology is just a means to an end; what will always matter the most is how well a journalist can identify a story and investigate its components. Smartphones make it easier (and cheaper) to tell rich stories in compelling and creative ways.”
MoJo courses are now readily available locally and globally. “In a day or two of hands-on training trainees can learn basic videography and photography skills, as well as how to edit video and audio they’ve recorded themselves, add text and other visual and audio elements they may have gathered, like screenshots, maps, charts, music, etc. Young journalists take to it in a flash, while even the older generations sit up and take notice as they start realising what kind of doors this technology is capable of opening,” he says.
Young media entrepreneurs are not waiting on established newsrooms to tap into the market, instead creating their own spaces, and establishing credible sites that appeal to their growing audience bases. As Yegon attests: “We are working to build and establish ourselves as an independent digital media outlet using our pocket studios. Our network is growing. We have a big following in Kenya and the East African region and this network is growing to the rest of Africa, with contributors from different parts of the continent.
“In December of 2018 we trained many young people from across the continent at the annual Republica conference in Accra, Ghana. We also have MoJo partners here in the continent and in Pakistan. We endeavour to equip more young people on the continent with this skill so that together we work on retelling Africa’s narrative, for we believe that our stories are best told by us.”
Editorial strategy: “A successful paywall needs a compelling and high-quality editorial product, so we worked hard to improve the quality of our journalism online. We also started implementing a digital-first workflow in our newsrooms, where all content is created and edited in CosMoS as stories are written, and only copied to the print production system for layout if it is also meant to appear in print. Such a workflow has helped to bolster our digital news output throughout the day as many stories can now be published online as soon as they are ready. ~ Riaan Wolmarans, managing editor: digital at Arena Africa
Lucinda Jordaan is an independent writer, researcher and editor with extensive experience in all media, covering fields from academia and finance to education and lifestyle. Her articles have appeared in several award-winning publications, locally and internationally, and she has contributed to books and online sites, including The Media Online.
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