“We are seeing several changes as far as globalisation, the shift in regulatory structures across different jurisdictions, including influences on how media is produced and consumed but one of the main challenges facing the media is how to create sustainable business models,” said Phillip Mogodi, Jamlab Accelerator manager, who moderated a panel discussion on media sustainability at the recent Jamfest conference.
Digitalisation has significantly changed the media landscape, and media organisations must find new ways to ensure long-term survival and independence. The speakers included Kate Skinner executive director of the Association of Independent Publishers (AIP), Makhudu Sefara editor of TimesLIVE and Scott Peter Smith, chief digital officer at The Mail & Guardian, who presented how their respective organisations are responding to the challenges facing the media industry.
Sefara said that conversations around media sustainability are the result of the media industry not paying attention to the nexus between journalism and innovation and that these conversations are a reaction to the disruptions that digitalisation has caused to the media industry. He warns that the media industry should not be reactionary, but that it should lead the change and be innovative. “We should pause, think ahead and think about the next 5, 10 and 15 years, and how will the news media revenue industry look like.” Sefara said that news organisations tend to focus heavily on profits and revenue but should also focus on organisational learning, what the competitors are doing, and what other people around the world are doing, and must be futuristic.
He explained that “change is pursued not because the media, of its own volition, thinks this is a great pursuit but because of innovations that happened independently of the media which now threaten the media’s sustainability.”
“Disrupt or be disrupted,” said Sefara. He added that “as a media industry, we should not be adapting to new changes, we should be innovative, and make people or other entities adapt to us”. Sefara said that “newsrooms need to understand the basics: pursue the truth, regardless, always be guided by public interest, hold power accountable, be mindful of the attention economy – the competition is outside the media and think of your cellphone as a mall, an arena.”
What should a 21st-century media house look like? Sefara said news organisations should employ or contract an innovation expert, the media must match skill sets against the technological demands of the company, upskilling and reskilling: reporters must be multi-skilled. Journalists must understand SEO (paid and organic); editors must immerse themselves in the technology (including AI) used by their future readers: but must think about what the future needs of readers are and start attending to them now.
“Media organisations need to have uncomfortable conversations with business because the media is not doing journalism just for profits, it’s about how we sustain democracy and without the media we are imperiled,” said Sefara. In addition, he said that the media need to have conversations with businesses on how the media have been affected by global changes and what support businesses can offer journalism and the media.
Smith said, “We have to start building tools that understand our audience better, ensure our audience’s loyalty, give the audience what they need and more importantly make sure that we are providing an appropriate service”. Adding that “at The Mail & Guardian, we are doing what we need to do, to futureproof ourselves.”
“The reality is we’re about 10% of the distribution from the print perspective that we were 10 years ago, so we’re shrinking quite rapidly”, said Smith. “Mail & Guardian is a small but effectively niche publication, which means we are not in the space that competes with bigger publications but they are more in a space where they can make as much money as they can from each individual as opposed to volume play,” he said. Smith added that as a small publication, they are not in a position to offer subscriptions at discounted rates and that they needed to consider how their content, which is niche, long-form, investigative pieces, fits into the market.
Smith said that “volume play does not work in that space, even though digital advertising is going from strength to strength and digital advertising is huge, but the problem is as publishers we are not getting a big cut, and it is not offsetting the advertising spend that we get in print, for example”.
“We are in a race against time, and we need to think about how to make the digital revenue higher than print,” he said. The Mail & Guardian is in a sustainable space, and they have set up their reader revenue which has a healthy size of subscribers, with a high retention rate, said Smith.
The Mail & Guardian has created a database that tracks and analyses who their readers are, what they are reading and why they are reading it. This database allows the publication to tailor their content for their audience which results in an active publication. Smith said that the publication is focused on building new products that are engaging such as making changes to their newsletter and rebuilding their event space with events such as the 200 Young South Africans and Power Women in Green. Through these events, they are building a Mail & Guardian community.
AIP is a national organisation that advances the interests of the local grassroots independent print and online media sector in South Africa. “We have 191 publications with a total monthly print run of 2.6 million which if you look at the readership of that, is almost eight million. And when we think of community media, community print and online, we think it’s tiny, but it isn’t. That’s big and also it’s interesting because it is mostly print and we do have several websites and online platforms but a lot of that is still print,” said Skinner.
During the pandemic, a majority of AIP’s publications stopped printing, and AIP had to think about how to respond to the changes. The organisation researched and found that between 2016 and 2021, there was a 14.6 million drop in annual readership. In response, AIP sent 10 of their publishers to Ohio, United States for three weeks to learn from other publishers in the country. In addition, AIP looked into four categories: monetising content, monetising attention, goods and services and fundraising.
“In terms of monetising content, we looked at subscriptions and whether we could implement subscriptions in a very poor environment, we found that we couldn’t but we decided to implement membership models, so those that could pay a small amount and those that couldn’t pay could still access the content,” said Skinner. AIP also encouraged events such as coffee mornings, and cultural and music events, which could bring in a new stream of revenue.
For monetising attention, AIP included advertorials from the government, and publications offered to include advertorials but asked the government and other organisations to help support and sustain their publications. With goods and services, some of their publications are selling merchandise and offer a form of online shopping to their readers. Additionally, for goods and services, some of AIP’s publications offer consulting and training, whereby they offer training to small newsrooms on editing, design and layout. Lastly, they offer fundraising through donor funds and crowdfunding. “The main lesson is trying to get multiple streams of income, don’t rely on one thing and don’t rely on advertising,” said Skinner.
Mogodi concluded that sustainability runs in parallel with vulnerability, “all these different organisations are very vulnerable to all the market forces, to all these different factors influencing and affecting what we do from political, economic, social, technological and other factors.”