Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

South Africa: Digital first doesn’t mean digital only

Digital first is one of the hottest phrases in journalism right now, with one major US newspaper company rebranding itself as Digital First Media and major newspapers like The Guardian announcing their own digital first strategies. Like a lot of buzzwords, digital first means different things to different people. Fundamentally, digital first is about two things: a shift in workflow and a shift in business emphasis. For newspapers, the workflow is shifted from focusing on the single deadline of producing a daily newspaper to the rolling deadline of producing digital content, and for the business, instead of selling digital as a sweetener or a loss leader for print advertising, digital advertising and other digital products become revenue generators on their own.

One thing digital first usually does not mean is digital only. Some newspapers in the US and Canada have reduced days that they print to only the most lucrative ones in terms of advertising, but for most newspapers, digital first is part of a multi-platform strategy. Another thing is that digital first is not just a North American trend. South African business newspaper Business Day recently announced its own digital first strategy. In announcing the shift, Editor Peter Bruce said:

Business Day will, very soon now, become a “digital first” news brand. We will begin to publish what we know when we know it on our newly designed website first, and make the newspaper after that. Then, a few months after that we’ll wrap a mesh around the website and the applications (apps, they’re called) we have on iPhones and iPads and our stories – our product – will be for sale as BDlive.

By shifting to digital first publishing, they are planning to slowly, but profoundly, reposition the paper. For many newspapers, with print revenue under pressure, they have had to shrink the size of the newspaper, meaning that they need to rethink what they use those increasingly precious pages for. It doesn’t make sense to reprint news that was published online and via mobile apps hours or possibly even the day before. Instead of looking back and repeating old news, Business Day will be “a different kind of newspaper – reflective, forward-looking and planned”.

Bruce says that the new digital product BDLive will be for sale, and practically, that means that Business Day is also following another major trend in newspaper publishing by creating a metered paywallMetered PaywallThe metered paywall allows users to view a specific number of articles before…

Some paywalls are watertight. BDlive is going to leak like crazy – there’ll be stories for free even before we ask you merely to register and more before we ask you to pay us anything.

For sites like Business Day and the New York Times, readers are asked to buy a digital subscription after they read a certain number of pages or articles on the site. The business case for a metered paywall is that the site still can attract readers on the open web, and therefore still maintain the sizeable audience necessary to attract premium advertisers. At the same time, metered paywalls do this while providing another source of digital revenue. The other benefit of metered paywalls is that they can evolve. Publishers can shift the number of articles that are offered free of charge, allowing them to carefully measure and maximise subscriber and advertising revenue.

Bruce must hope that in a year’s time he can claim as much, if not more, success than the New York Times. The Times now has a half million digital subscribers and has just announced that readers, both those who buy the paper and those who subscriber to its digital products, now provide more revenue than advertisers. Not all the news is good at the New York Times. As Joe Coscarelli of New York Magazine pointed out: “The transition was accelerated by the death spiral of print ads, and the stalling of growth for online advertising, but more expensive subscriptions and charging for website access play a role as well.”

This isn’t just an historic shift for many newspapers, but as Business Day’s Bruce points out, it’s a necessary shift.

Unless we do this SA can kiss goodbye to its own stand-alone daily business newspaper. … After 38 years in the trade I still ache for the smell of newsprint in the morning and fully embracing digital is my way of saving Business Day as a newspaper in the long term.

When does paid content make sense?

Advertising-supported content has been the norm for digital publishing with only a few, and then mostly business publications like Business Day, charging readers. Stuart Thomas of South African tech and media site Memeburn said that Business Day and the New York Times have similar audiences: “a well-educated, relatively high income readership”. He said:

That readership is willing to pay for quality content. But if Business Day’s going to make its digital offering work, then that emphasis on quality must come above everything else.

Chris Moerdyk of The Media Online says that Business Day has realised that “its most valuable asset is not a masthead on a piece of paper but rather a newsroom full of specialists who used to be called journalists, reporters, sub-editors and editors”.

Just as importantly, Moerdyk paints the editorial shift of moving to digital first is less of a challenge than shifting from a print-based to a digital-focused media business.

The biggest challenge, in my opinion, will be revenue generation. Because, if you think that the shift from printed product to digital takes a lot of mental adaptation, the move from selling newspaper advertising to digital revenue generation is massive by comparison.

He said that in the shift to digital the mind-set of sales and advertising staff has to change radically. Faith in banner ads is waning, and digital advertising techniques are becoming more targeted and focused on allowing brands to communicate directly with individual consumers. He said:

Whether BDlive will succeed or not will most certainly be entirely dependent on their sales force completely understanding the online environment and particularly the way advertising as we know it, is changing so radically.

That is one of the key things we’re trying to do with the Knowledge Bridge, help news organisations not just shift their editorial thinking to digital but just as importantly make the radical shift in thinking about the revenue and sales that will sustain your journalism. This month in the Digital Briefing, we’re going to cover how to create an effective digital advertising strategy, and next month, in September, we’re going to cover paid content. If you know of any interesting digital advertising or paid content strategies outside of the US and Western Europe or if you have a great strategy that is working for you, please drop us an email at

Article by Kevin Anderson

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