Hermaneutics: From print to payments, SA media keeps innovating
by Herman Manson. What does it take for the media industry to innovate?
For years, high-profile media brands kept falling out of circulation as business models became unsustainable (cost of paper, the collapse of the post office, limited distributor options, Google, Facebook, juniorisation of the newsroom, the rise of clickbait… the list goes on). It was sad to watch — the redundancies, the hollowing out — but you could look around and still see magazines and newspapers published, journalism practised and truths exposed. Most journos also instinctively knew that, at some point, the big guns in South Africa’s media world were going to shrug and hit the nuclear option; top management would keep loading costs onto their titles, pushing margins as opposed to reinvesting, and cutting, always cutting, mostly people. Then, with the arrival of the covid-19 lockdown, we saw the departure of dozens of titles, some with long and storied histories. Bang went Caxton, Associated Media Publishing and a chunk of Media24’s print portfolio.
In 2020, all South African media brands should be treated as startups. If you’re not, you’re 1) already dead; 2) soon to be dead; and/or 3) working from a garage with no medical or pension and expected to feel grateful because your title wasn’t summarily closed down while your erstwhile employer ‘outsourced’ production to retrenched employees.
The real innovation is seemingly driven by newer players and entrepreneurs. Yet how did the industry arrive at this point? What are the key structural issues media companies face that impact on their ability to innovate and adapt? Let’s sum it up in three words for ya:
Lack of leadership
“The lack of success on the innovation front is due to a deficiency in the quality of leadership we have,” says Styli Charalambous, Daily Maverick publisher and CEO. “Successful innovation requires very specific ingredients and that starts with having the leaders who can recognise what they are, and make the tough calls to acquire or cultivate them. And, for an industry in decline, it’s hard to attract those kinds of leaders or have the awareness and opportunity to develop them.”
According to Charalambous, leaders will need to “develop their understanding that organisational design is critical for innovation and can only be driven by them”.
“I’ve also seen great media minds being smothered by groupthink, a herd mentality that severely impacts the ability to innovate, adapt and change,” comments Ivor Price, Food For Mzansi and Farmer’s Inside Track co-founder and editor-in-chief. “Many of these companies have been around for at least a century, and built up quite a bit of cash, brand value and muscle. Unfortunately, structurally speaking, it also comes with a lot of power that alienates many legacy media brands from their audiences. They aren’t set up to think beyond the boundaries they’ve built for themselves; they just aren’t as hungry as the new generation of media entrepreneurs currently flourishing.”
Siyabonga Africa, South Africa Media Innovation Program (SAMIP) program officer, also identifies a lack of organisational capacity in the form of shrinking newsrooms and the loss of institutional knowledge as part of the problem, as well as declining readership/audiences that lead to declining advertising revenue — “tied to this are revenue models that [are] predominantly tied to advertising and are thus more vulnerable to any disruptions,” he says.
Similarly, Patrick Palmi, JustPalm.com CEO, says he believes the problem isn’t really structural; mostly, it’s about mindsets. “Creativity is everywhere and everyone can innovate in any domain. However, it takes a different mindset to try new things that can potentially fail to find the one that finally works. As Thomas Edison once said, ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10 000 ways that won’t work.’ I believe we need a leadership mindset that encourages a culture of innovation and puts up the necessary funding to try new things.”
Investing in innovation
Anton Crone, the recently appointed editor of Getaway magazine which has just refreshed its look and is embracing a multiplatform strategy, also identifies legacy (companies and staff are set in their ways, struggling to break free of practices that have seen them through thus far but are now outdated), lack of diversity (failure to broaden the range of staff and skills to embrace the full gambit of modern media practices), and disempowered employees (innovation needs to filter down from the top to encourage employees to try new ideas, take risks and look ahead) as core areas stifling innovation.
“You often hear people talk about ‘failing fast’ but there’s much more to it in order to successfully innovate,” says Charalambous. “We need a clearly defined vision to know in which direction to experiment, and a methodology or framework to help learn and iterate through the process. Using product design thinking in approaching launching new products and revenue opportunities has helped us significantly improve the way we work with new projects. Some of the biggest strides we’ve made as an organisation is getting better at choosing areas to experiment in and how to approach them in ways that don’t break the bank. We are clear on what our key results are for each initiative before we go into them and that helps us measure our progress for each one.”
Africa believes media organisations need to examine their value proposition especially as it relates to the problem(s) they’re trying to solve for their audiences. “Creating and distributing content is no longer the most effective approach, given the diversity of media providers and the effect that social media platforms have had on the distribution of content and consumption habits of audiences.
“Media organisations with strong value propositions (such as unique content or information or a unique method with which they provide it) can differentiate themselves from their competition and potentially establish niches within their fields.”
“We think of ourselves as social entrepreneurs first,” says Price. “From the way we manage our newsroom to our revenue model, everything works differently from bigger setups. We’re also a ‘media-first’ news brand, and our journos are competent in the unique dynamics of, among others, live video, podcasting and much, much more.”
Price says Food For Mzansi, which was named Africa’s Best Digital News Startup at WAN-IFRA’s African Digital 2019 Media Awards and won three awards (including Best for Audience Engagement) at the 2020 edition, will increasingly explore options to connect its audience to its customers.
Daily Maverick has launched Daily Maverick 168, which takes the digital platform into print through a distribution model that sees a weekend newspaper distributed via Pick n Pay stores. The title is free to customers swiping their Pick n Pay Smart Shopper cards, with a cover price of R20 for everyone else. Other recent innovations include a documentary production arm, two podcasts and a host of new newsletters. Its live journalism team has put on 50 webinars since lockdown and started a book publishing arm, too.
According to Charalambous, innovation focus is centred on growing its audience reach and driving revenue, without compromising values or standards. He believes Daily Maverick 168 will be breaking even on a monthly basis within six months on a print run of 25 000 “but we’ll then make a push for bigger circulation which would change things up again. I expect the next 18 months will be investing in the growth of the title and seeing how quickly ad support comes back.”
He says media innovation requires the allocation of enough resources and support to innovation efforts: “The news industry had some very profitable years but got caught up by past successes and didn’t design organisations that nurture and incentivise innovation with adequate resources. Daily Maverick is still the challenger in this space but pretty soon we’ll be faced with the same paradox, so it’s important we make innovation part of the culture, with a framework to support it.”
“If service to your audience is one of your main values, and you have a well-defined, nuanced view of a viable audience, that is going to lead you to create real value for them, which they will reward with their time and attention,” says Kobus Louwrens, YehBaby Digital strategy director and Food For Mzansi co-founder. “The traditional news way of thinking comes at this from the opposite side: serving the news and the information and feeling the responsibility to push it out at people.
“A service mindset to your audience tends to make your thinking platform-agnostic, which is a great driver of innovation. You figure out ways of giving your audience what they trust you to provide and gain the capabilities to do that as you go. You go looking to meeting them where they are, instead of primarily trying to build or protect your favourite channels and platforms.”
Today, innovation gives media brands a shot at survival. This is where we are as an industry. How many will embrace a culture of innovation and collaboration, of empowering people to come up with solutions, of management buying into these, of valuing experience and service, and investing money into it?
Everything I know about the media industry suggests this is a tall order. And if lack of leadership — which many of those interviewed for this feature points to as the major barrier to innovation — persists, our media environment will continue giving way to new players embracing, and investing, in change.