Mail & Guardian’s Hoosain Karjieker: Digital first but not digital only
South Africa’s Mail & Guardian is truly a digital pioneer. Not only did it launch the first online news website in Africa, but it launched its website in 1994, well ahead of many news organisations in the US and Europe.
“We had a benefit of being online at a very early age in our history,” said Mail & Guardian CEO Hoosain Karjieker, adding, “that really gave us a base upon which to grow.”
This early lead positioned the Mail & Guardian to take advantage of recent rapid growth in internet usage in South Africa. Internet use grew 25 percent in 2011, bringing the number of South Africans using the internet to 8.5 m, and it is estimated that the number will grow further to 10 m by the end of 2012, according to research by World Wide Worx. Of the 8.5 m internet users, 7.9 m have accessed the internet on their mobile phones, and 2.48 m do not have a PC and accessed the internet solely through their mobile phones.
For the Mail & Guardian, being pioneers doesn’t mean that they haven’t had many of the same challenges other news groups have faced as they developed digitally. However, by clearly laying out their strategy to take advantage of digital opportunities not only editorially but also commercially and working with staff to develop multi-platform skills, they have won over sceptics inside the organisation, which has allowed them to grow their digital business strongly.
The shift to digital first
“About two years ago, we realised that revenues were beginning to migrate in significant proportion into the online environment,” Karjieker said.
South Africa’s internet economy was described as the country’s “quiet engine of growth” in a 2012 report bv World Wide Worx (PDF). E-commerce sales have risen by 30 percent year-over-year for the past two years, and in both 2010 and 2011, the online advertising market grew 35 percent year-over-year, rising to R760 m or US$89 m.
Seeing this shift not just in user behaviour but also a shift in opportunity to attract advertising revenue, the Mail & Guardian launched a digital first strategy, Karjieker said, adding:
We didn’t see this as something that was going to kill off the print environment, but we embraced it as an important platform for us to be engaged with, for us to be present on and for us to develop business models around.
Initially the move met with a lot of resistance “from your traditional print journalist who felt he was employed to write a weekly article that was going to be published in the Mail & Guardian,” he said. Having a byline in the paper was seen as quite prestigious.
They had to undergo training to write for digital formats and a “change process” to deal with the resistance. Journalists also saw what was happening in the US and the UK at The Guardian, and it reinforced the concept of going digital for them, he said. They understood that this was going to come. They also changed the contracts of the journalists so that digital responsibilities were included in their role. All and all, Karjieker said:
It hasn’t been easy. There has been resistance, but gradually people made the shift. What we found now is that people are eager to write, and we have an abundance of articles to put up online.
Now the newspaper is comfortable breaking stories online rather than wait for the end of the week. With that change and others, he says that they are now able to present good quality content on digital platforms. The changes have allowed the Mail & Guardian to see strong audience growth, he said.
The shift to digital hasn’t just been on the editorial side. They also changed their incentive structure to reward digital sales.
Convergence once had a negative connotation in the organisation, but it has become a positive message. “If you are able to articulate the vision and mission right at the top of the organisation at an early stage, especially around a digital first strategy, people are willing to embrace it a lot easier,” he said.
Stronger commercial and editorial cooperation
Shifting to digital hasn’t been the only change. They have also started to soften some of the barriers between editorial and commercial staff. When they launch new print or online sections, they often have held road shows to meet with advertisers to market the new offering. Sales staff are obviously a key element of these efforts, but they also take editors of the divisions as well. “They can clearly spell out and articulate the message and manner in which we will be conveying the editorial,” he said. They found that advertisers want to engage with the editors, he said. In the past, there were fears that such meetings would impact on editorial independence, but editors themselves have seen the commercial advantage in such meetings.
For most journalists, the wall between editorial and commercial in news organisations is absolute and unbreakable. Finding a way to deal with this cultural resistance is often as challenging as dealing with the shift to digital.
“A lot of people still frown on it throughout the organisation, but I think we were able to convince them that taking on a commercial initiative doesn’t mean that journalists have to write positively about them,” he said. He gave an example of how the Mail & Guardian has been able to maintain its editorial independence even when writing about their advertisers. A major telecommunications company is a prominent advertiser for a business section both in print and online, and six months ago the newspaper covered some of the company’s business dealings in Iran and flaws in the operations. “We were able to write that without fear that we would be victimised by the advertiser or anyone from the organisation,” he said.
It has helped convince editors that they can work with their commercial colleagues without compromising their rightly valued editorial independence.
Article by Kevin Anderson