As media models, especially online, evolve, smaller startups can play an important role in adding to the landscape, says Ferial Haffajee. She is the associate editor at Daily Maverick and Fin24 in South Africa, a former editor at Huffington Post South Africa and before that, editor of Mail & Guardian and City Press. She recently shared lessons from her experience digital newsrooms with jamlab accelerator teams.

Alongside some larger media players, she envisages “a number of small, successful startups that are never going to be media empires, but they’ll knit together a fabric of a new media to take over that which is very quickly dying.” To succeed in this, startups need to consider how commercially minded and aware of trends they are, as well how strong their agenda-setting power is, since “finding a space in that noise is extremely difficult to do,” Haffajee says.

A scene from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Image:

This starts with solid audience research and being aware of the need your work is meeting and how. Haffajee warns that “often we can make things and then be mad when people don’t come to it. ” It is important to understand exactly who you are aiming your content at, including whether your methods of dissemination and use of social media are appropriate and powerful in reaching them. She cautions that while startups may apply exciting new technologies and methods, their core focus still needs to be on the value they are giving to their audiences.

This means learning what is truly of interest to audiences. Haffajee says she has sadly seen good coverage of crucial issues, like the Marikana massacre, sell poorly. The balancing act is not to avoid social justice issues but to present them well.

“We’ve got to learn what makes those things interesting to people and then craft your content in such a way that it still carries the strong social justice leaning of what you’re doing but that is done differently in a way that makes people used to it or enjoy it.”

Another important lesson for startups is to learn good timing and anticipate what may be of interest. Haffajee admits doing this well is harder now than in the past because trends come and go so quickly. “You’re going have to get sussed at spotting what are evergreen talking points.” She suggests some could be race, issues of culture and politics, but advises to be aware of a few ‘watercooler talking points’ that are specific to your content niche.

When done well, Haffajee explains there are definite opportunities for smaller players in the field. She notes a trend in various African countries in the past years where journalists started “breaking away from the big groups and state media, largely using the lower barriers of entry that an online world offers us and starting these very successful little media companies that very quickly started to set the agenda in their respective countries.” She gives examples like the Premium Times in Nigeria and the Kenyan publication Africa Uncensored.

The success of some of these smaller ventures across the continent is often underpinned by mixed business models, that may include funding and small but impactful parts of the commercial advertising pie. In South Africa, she applauds the Daily Maverick Insider membership model as working well. “As startups, you are coming into a universe where there is an increased willingness to pay,” Haffajee says. While warning that this is still in the early stages, she does say there is inspiration to be drawn from international players like The New York Times and The Guardian and who have models such as strong paywall and voluntary paid premium models.

As startups carve out their niche in a changing media landscape, there is hope that they can do so successfully through a good understanding of their audiences, creating relevant and timely content, as well as learning innovative and strong ways to sustain themselves.



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