Hear ye! Hear ye! Print is not dead, long live digital

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

The delivery of news has moved on since town criers rang their bells and cried “hear ye, hear ye” to the mostly illiterate masses. But never before in the shifting media landscape has there been so much choice in the way in which the masses receive their news.

Television, print, radio, the internet, smartphones, social networks and good old word of mouth; we use them all.

One of the primary battlegrounds, though, is between print and digital mediums, chiefly news websites, and everyone has an opinion on the state of play. But just who is winning the battle for eyeballs? When Newsweek throws the print game and goes digital, Business Day becomes a ‘digital first’ publication and The Guardian newspaper’s online offering becomes a global brand, is digital kicking newspaper ass? Or should it not be seen as a battle but rather as an opportunity to gather readers regardless of the platform?

Peter Bruce, editor-in-chief and publisher of Business Day and BDFM, says the decision to go ‘digital first’ was strategic, one made “in recognition of audience demand for relevant, authoritative content delivered across multiple platforms when it is of most value to readers”.

It’s a view shared by Professor Anton Harber of the University of the Witwatersand’s Journalism School, who says what matters most is content. “I want an intelligent and discernible selection of news and information which meets my needs and tastes. How I get it is of secondary concern.

Give me useful, interesting information and opinion on the back of a chewing gum wrapper, and I will consume it (and throw away the gum),” he says. “Clearly, digital media has a cost and speed advantage, which print cannot match and this will give it the ascendancy. But digital media is still not able to generate the revenue to invest in a lot of real journalism, so the switchover depends on a workable business model,” he says.

Many of the people interviewed by The Media for this story mentioned The Daily Maverick as a news site that delivers so much more than the news. “From a content perspective The Daily Maverick sucker punched just about every major news organisation in the country with its coverage on Marikana and the ANC elective conference in Mangaung.

It is not really a site for general news – but in terms of insight into what’s happening at grassroots and political intelligence, they have emerged as a clear front-runner, beating both newspapers, newspaper-owned news sites and TV,” says Herman Manson, editor of Marklives.com (a local advertising, design and media site).

He says BDlive works as a news site. “The site feels dynamic, isn’t as reliant on wire copy as many others are and offers real insight at a level similar to that of The Daily Maverick , although with a less investigative feel,” he says.

Tech entrepreneur and online publisher of various Burn Media sites (Memeburn, Gearburn, Ventureburn), Matt Buckland, says newspapers still have an edge when it comes to quality. “I think newspapers are in a position to spend more time over their content because there is a fixed daily or weekly deadline that everyone works towards.

It sounds simplistic, but it does play a role. So at the moment the nature of the medium does influence the quality of the content. Advertising revenues are entrenched in the print world, so currently print operations are in a position to pay for more editorial infrastructure and human capital. As long as these organisations evolve into multi-platform quality content digital operations, bringing the advertising model to these new platforms, their future is secured. If not, their days are over,” he says.

CEO of The Daily Maverick and iMaverick , Styli Charalambous, agrees. “Newspapers still command a lot of ‘front-of-mind’ thinking when it comes to readers and advertisers. For readers, newspapers still carry that stamp of authenticity whereas because of the low-barriers to entries, almost anyone can publish whatever they like on the internet.

“That perception is changing with quality digital publishers like Daily Maverick putting in place stricter editorial standards than most newspapers implement themselves, but it still is a problem, albeit a diminishing one. Similarly, advertisers still regard digital advertising as a low-cost commodity because of the way online has been structured and sold before, while newspapers command massive rates for insertions to fewer amount of eyeballs,” he says.

Zibusiso Mkhwanazi, CEO of digital marketing agency AVATAR, says the reality is that the consumer is changing, as are their real-world experiences. “Publishers who embrace this change and are innovative will survive. Riding the digital wave is no guarantee of survival in an ever-changing media environment. This applies to the local environment and as well as global.”

Mkhwanazi believes niche sites are more flexible and daring, which is why they have more passionate audiences. “They also have sharply focused information, hence are able to provide more relevant information for the readers’ information requirements. Looking at the global environment, AOL’s acquisition of TechCrunch in 2010 was an indicator that size can be a disadvantage when it comes to attracting niche audiences, which can be easily targeted by advertisers,” he says.

Bruce says newspapers have “the luxury of presentation on a big page. Finding ways to represent complicated news stories graphically or breaking these down using innovative layouts is something that print still does better than online, and it offers additional value to readers who may already know the basic facts from reading online news reports.”

“Print allows news editors to cluster related stories together in clear and visually attractive packages. When these stories present a coherent analysis of the previous day’s news, such packages become part of the reason why readers will keep reading Business Day in print as well as online.”

The problem with many sites attached to newspapers is that they’re not offering something different, says Media Tenor CEO, Wadim Schreiner. “And this is the crux of the matter. Internet consumers are not prepared to pay for online content – but the production costs are the same, minus print costs. So there needs to be a real reason to pay.

So far, most papers have an online edition because ‘you must have one’ and simply to stretch their audiences. People switch from print to online, but it is largely the same audience, plus perhaps growing slowly a new audience,” he says. However, people will be prepared to pay to access an online version that offers more information than the print version, says Schreiner, using the Financial Times as an example.

While pundits embrace the power of niche sites such as The Daily Maverick , Memeburn and BDlive, there’s no doubt that news sites such as News24, TimesLIVE and Yahoo can claim a substantial share of those eyeballs.

Jannie Momberg, editor in chief of News24, says he doesn’t set out to entice print readers into the company’s online publications. “All people interested in current affairs and information – including print, radio and TV, are potential users of our products. Digital publishing’s biggest differentiator from print is the immediacy of our publication. Due to the nature of their production process, newspapers are yesterday’s news today.

“People want to find out what, why and how things happened now, not tomorrow. The near-universal uptake over the last decade of first feature phones and now smart phones has given users the opportunity to be ‘always on’. Digital platforms also allow users to interact more with and on events,” he says, adding that newspapers “analyse and interpret events better than most online publications”.

Professor of journalism and media studies at Rhodes University, Herman Wasserman, says there is “no doubt that online has put huge pressure on print media, and that pressure is likely to grow. There is no denying the turmoil in the global print media market or the local one”.

But, he says: “Newspapers should embrace these new platforms and invest in ways (and people) that can use them to their advantage. The distinction between ‘newspapers’ and ‘online’ shouldn’t exist anymore – they are part of a converged environment.”

Wasserman says the important question is “not when the print newspaper will die out, but how print newspapers can embrace new technologies to reach new audiences, interact differently with their readers, and provide a broader range of services”.

Perhaps Bruce has the right idea. “The digital-first strategy is not meant to pull readers away from the print newspaper. The newsroom workflow was completely changed last year to allow us to publish news stories, comment and features to BDlive throughout the day – written by our own staff and edited by the newsdesk.

The newspaper is, over time, becoming more of an in-depth, analytical look at the news, most of which would have already been reported in some form on BDlive. Therefore print and online subscribers – digital subscriptions will be launched later this year – will not necessarily see the same content twice.”

The real threat to print, Bruce says, “is not recognising that an audience is not divided by platform, but rather by content preference”.

By Glenda Nevill

Source: This story was first published in March 2013 in a special newspaper supplement of The Media magazine.