Picture: Austin Distel/Unsplash
Picture: Austin Distel/Unsplash

How do we keep quality journalism alive as traditional revenue models become inapt? Digital seems to be our only salvation, with readers flooding online for their news. In 2020 online news traffic grew 76%; but increased audience numbers don't necessarily translate into increased revenue.

At the recent Future of Media online event, presented in partnership with Vodacom, Primedia Outdoor, The MediaShop, TILT, The FM Redzone, the World Association of Newspapers & News Publishers (Wan-Ifra) and The Media Online, the focus was on digital revenue models emerging in SA. Panellists were asked to share their successes and challenges as they figure out how to monetise news in a digital landscape.

Kicking off the discussion, moderator Siya Sangweni asked the panellists how they had decided on their chosen revenue model.

Trial and error,” said Daily Maverick CEO and publisher Styli Charalambous. The online newspaper soon realised it was never going to raise enough revenue to cover costs as a digital-only publisher focusing on political coverage in SA. Not wanting to put its content behind a paywall, it opted for a voluntary membership model. “Content can move a country,” said Charalambous. “And you can't do that when only a few people have access to that content.”

Arena Holdings head of digital: media Riaan Wolmarans described a different journey and set of challenges. “First was getting the tech right: Arena relaunched all its old websites and developed a  new content management system. After that it was finding the appropriate paywall and settling on freemium content, still giving readers free content but requiring them to pay for rest. Then came the hardest job: convincing readers to pay”, he said.

Wan-Ifra CEO Vincent Peyrègne was asked what SA can learn from global experience. “Success requires a culture shift,” he said. “There needs to be a new level of collaboration between newsrooms, tech developers and marketing departments. News organisations also need to come up with a product that offers 'the right content, to the right audience, at the right time'”.

Primedia Outdoor marketing and marketing services executive Jorja Wilkins explained: “Tech came to the rescue, with new digital capabilities saving as many campaigns as possible and helping Primedia identify which audiences were on the roads at which time of day. Out-of-home (OOH) advertising also served the community with important public service messages about Covid”.

Moving on to the all-important subject of content, Sangweni asked the panellists how they ensure they have content that keeps consumers wanting more. 

Charalambous emphasised the importance of understanding your audience and creating value in their eyes. And he says data analytics and tech can help with that. But first an organisation needs to be absolutely clear about what its vision and mission is. And it needs to understand how that overlaps with the needs of the audience, because “it's in that overlap that the magic happens”, he said.

Wolmarans agreed, saying that before you launch a paywall you first have to ask yourself the difficult question: “Do you have content worth paying for? And sometimes the answer is 'Well, nothing right now.'" Again, good research is critical: “If you don't understand the demographics of your readers, any paywall is a nonstarter." And once a paywall is up, it needs to evolve: Like a “living beast”, he said, it needs daily care and attention.

So which is the winning revenue model?

Wilkins said Primedia Outdoor chose a hybrid model of both classic and programmatic ads for OOH. She said while digital is growing, traditional models are still making money, so it's about getting the balance right.

Similarly, Wolmarans said that “legacy print is still making good money on print ads, so we can't drop everything and focus only on digital. Monetisation is not just trying to make up for what is lost on the print side, but making it an entirely self-sustainable revenue stream.”

According to Charalambous, the main thing is to innovate with regard to users. “Don't be driven by what your competitors are doing, don't just chase profits: focus on your audience.”

And audiences need to be able to trust you.

Wolmarans quotes editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic magazine, which has had a soaring subscription rate since the beginning of Covid: “We will be saved as an institution by bearing down on quality, quality, quality. Just do the most deeply reported, beautifully written, carefully edited, fact-checked, copy-edited and beautifully designed stories — and the reader will come. They want to be supportive and they want access. And it turns out to be true. Thank God for it.”

You can have smartest paywall”, says Wolmarans, “but if you don't have quality to back it up, you're nowhere”.

The big takeout:

To monetise digital news successfully, you need to know what you stand for and who your audiences are, and you must deliver a product they can trust

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