The latest issue of the State of the Newsroom looked at the impact of Covid-19 on the South African media in 2020. The report highlighted the ways in which the pandemic changed how audiences consume the news and what South African media needs to do to adapt to a changing media landscape. Alan Finlay, the editor of the annual report was in conversation with John Bailey, managing editor at eNCA, Gabriella Razzano, executive director at OpenUp, Adriaan Basson, editor-in-chief at News24 and Kate Skinner, executive director at The Association of Independent Publishers (AIP). They unpacked the changes that they saw within their newsrooms from the onset of the pandemic.

The impact of Covid-19 on print media – is there a recovery? 

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Skinner. She explained that “when they [small publications]  go through a very difficult time they stop printing, that doesn’t mean that they close down altogether. In the last couple of months’ publications have started printing again”.

Skinner noted that due to a lack of printing some publications were experimenting with digital – launching websites and being more active on social media. Finlay questioned whether they would be able to sustain themselves online.

“No you can’t.  There is still some money in print but what seems to be happening is multi-platforms – with publications making use of online platforms and continuing to print”. There is still advertising there, the sense is that it will be there for a number of years – even for a decade and then you start to go online,” said Skinner.

Skinner noted that it would be challenging for some publications to be solely online. “It is not sensible for small publications to solely go online,” she said.

The sustainability of media

Many media publications have turned to subscription models to offset the losses from a lack of advertising. Media24 was one of those publications, which launched its subscription model in August 2020.

“From content and traffic point of view, it has been a good two years for News24. We have seen our audiences double, with readers/audiences staying longer to read articles/content, engagement time has gone up on our app,” said Basson. He added: “with the subscription service, we have seen the introduction of a new solid revenue stream”.

Basson said it is not always easy to choose which content goes behind a wall. “We use human intelligence as well as artificial intelligence to make that decision”. News24 partnered with a company that helps it to identify topics and stories that the software thinks will convince subscribers based on historical behavior. When News24 writes an article on a specific topic or people, the software will flag that as something to potentially put behind the subscription.

Can small and independent media publications introduce subscription services? “We came to the party with around 10-million users per month, we could build from that scale, we could introduce a reader revenue model from that scale. It is going to be very hard for a startup publication to start from scratch with a paywall or some kind of subscription service if you are not established. People don’t know your journalism or trust your brand,” said Basson.

Does television have the power to draw audiences?

“After a surge in audience numbers with the arrival of Covid-19, viewers turn down the news as the year progresses,” according to the State of the Newsroom report. The findings were that eTV’s ratings were down by 43%, SABC 1(Xhosa) down by 28%, SABC 1(Zulu) down by 30%, SABC 2(Afrikaans) down by 27% and SABC 3 down by 65%.

Despite a drop in viewership, John Bailey, managing editor at eNCA, said that there is still an appetite for how news is relayed on television.

“TV being a visual medium, that is quite powerful for people, they want to see what is happening live,” said Bailey. He noted that the younger generation uses their phones to get a quick synopsis of the news, whilst older audiences prefer to sit in front of the TV and watch what is happening live.

Click here to read the report

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