From the ashes of last year’s across-the-board disruption arose an opportunity for digital news publishers to shine.
In January 2020, South African news websites were reporting on the new coronavirus outbreak in China – of interest, but not all that dramatic for a country down at the southern tip of Africa. Little did anyone know how quickly, and how badly, Covid-19 would disrupt our news industry.
Less than three months later, the country entered a full lockdown. News publishers scrambled to ensure staff could work from home, and that reporters and editors had the right paperwork to carry on as essential workers.
At Arena Holdings, the immediate effects included not being able to print our magazines, including Financial Mail. Newspaper printing continued, but distribution and sales became a nightmare. Retail outlets were closed, distribution routes became unviable and readers who routinely bought newspapers were confined to their homes, instantly breaking that habit. Customer support suffered when our external call centre shut down.
We made quick technical changes to ease access to our e-editions (PDF replicas of our print editions) and marketed these online to our readers. Take-up was healthy but shady characters started distributing these for free on WhatsApp, so we had to prevent the printing and copying of e-edition pages.
Most calamitously, though, advertising revenue – especially in print, which accounts for the bulk of news publisher revenue in this regard – disappeared overnight as advertisers faced the disruption of their own industries. This sparked urgent internal cost cutting at news publishers to protect cash flow, including cuts to salaries and retrenchments.
Digital ad revenue also collapsed, but in many aspects seemed to have recovered by year-end, while print still bore the wounds of diminished circulation and revenue losses.
A vote of confidence
Yet all was not doom and gloom. Most publishers’ website publishing systems already allowed staff to work from anywhere, so work was not interrupted. Record numbers of readers flocked to our websites to consume verified, reliable information about the crisis. At Arena, we interpreted this as a vote of confidence in the trustworthiness of our titles and the technical reliability of our websites, including TimesLIVE, SowetanLIVE and BusinessLIVE.
Even though we made our coronavirus coverage free to read, our lockdown subscription special proved popular amid rising public acceptance of having to pay for quality online news (a trend boosted by recent paywall roll-outs at the Citizen and News24, and the Daily Maverick’s voluntary support model).
Digital subscription revenue is a core focus at Arena Holdings. It is a sustainable way to keep our titles from failing as many others have in the past year, especially in the devastated local magazine industry. To sustain the spike in subscriptions from March onwards, we had to improve internal processes more rapidly than expected. This included our technical subscription systems, and our ability to analyse data gathered on our websites and use the results to grow our subscriber base.
So what lies ahead for digital publishing in 2021? We will keep making the most of the success of our websites in the past year in terms of both general readership and digital subscriptions. Three of our main focus areas, which should also ring true for other subscription-driven news publishers, are as follows.
Quality – content and technology
We have to keep improving the speed and quality of our reporting to retain our more than 10 million digital readers per month, to entice them to use our websites often and for longer periods, and, most importantly, to convert some of them into paying subscribers.
This is not an easy task given how newsroom resources have dwindled, but it is made easier by our ever-evolving in-house digital publishing systems, and by adapting our newsroom planning systems and workflows to the demands of the digital era.
We also keep innovating and improving our technology – often via strategic partnerships with external partners – to make the consumption of digital news, and central processes such as signing in or subscribing, as seamless as possible for our readers.
Data and subscriptions
Within the constraints of privacy legislation, we now gather more data about the behaviour of our digital readers and subscribers than ever before. This goes much deeper than simply knowing how many readers visit our websites or which articles they read. We must understand how the combination of our technology and quality content can convert a reader into a subscriber, how to identify potential subscribers and make them an enticing and well-timed subscription offer, and how to ensure existing subscribers do not cancel.
All of this data requires careful but speedy real-time collation and interpretation to be presented to editors, reporters, management, the circulation team, marketing and more, so they can make informed decisions. We have a data team focused solely on developing our efforts in this area, which is the backbone of our digital subscription strategy.
As expected, more of the country’s news consumers accessed our websites only via their mobile devices during lockdown. On TimesLIVE, that spiked as high as 90% of our audience.
News publishers have to think mobile first at all times. Any website development must prioritise ease of consumption on phones and tablets, as should the way we present and publish our content. Fast and reliable apps are a cornerstone of any mobile publishing strategy, and competition in the local news app market is hotting up: the newly updated Business Day app has more than doubled its readership in just two months, for example.
In summary, though the first year of the pandemic brought much tragedy and disruption, it also created an unexpected but welcome opportunity for our digital news industry to shine. The challenge in the next 12 months will be to hold on to those gains and turn them into much-needed revenue.
Riaan Wolmarans is head of digital: media at Arena Africa. He is an experienced editor and manager with plenty of skills in digital publishing and website management, as well as print editing and production. His specialities include editing, production, website management, writing and online publishing.
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