How Tiso Blackstar is tapping into reader revenues

Earlier this year South African online news readers were greeted with the country’s very first daily digital news magazine: Times Select. Curated by an “expert editorial team” with the aim to offer subscribers the most important news and business stories of the day, the content is edited down to a 20-minute read, and delivered once a day at 5am.

Lisa MacLeod, group head of digital at Tiso Blackstar, publisher of leading English titles such as Business Day, the Sowetan, Financial Mail and The Sunday Times, describes Times Select, which is currently delivered free of charge to registered users’ email inboxes but will require subscription in July, as a “sharply edited view of the news of the day” packaged in “a definitive read”.


Lisa MacLeod ()

Photo: LinkedIn/Lisa MacLeod


Should Times Select remind you of Espresso, an email digital newsletter originally designed for daily smartphone consumption by The Economist in the UK, MacLeod says you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Times Select was created to be a finite read, as a digital replacement for The Times newspaper. 

“We have done reader research on Times Select and were blown away by the positive sentiment for the product: the style, the format and the frequency are definitely filling a much-needed gap in the market,” she says.

“The upside about doing business in South Africa is that we are slightly behind the international curve. So we can watch what is happening in the European and other markets and respond accordingly, but make fewer mistakes along the way.” 

But Times Select is only one cog in Tiso Blackstar’s larger machine to increase subscriber revenues. When MacLeod was appointed group head of digital in September 2015 she already knew where she wanted to steer the ship. “We realised very well that the return on subscription products, or average revenue per user, was going to be 100 to 200 times higher than on digital products driven by banner advertising. We deliberately started to focus on creating products that could generate sustainable reader revenues.” 


Times Select ()


One of the first steps was to design a new, neutral digital-only brand representing some of the group’s business print brands such as Business Day, Financial Mail and Business Times, and major international content partnerships with the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and Morningstar.

Where each of the South African business brands already had an accompanying website, MacLeod saw the value of creating what she describes as an “umbrella site” to roll up traffic, improve navigation and discoverability and maximise the content value for a premium audience. Business Live was launched almost two years ago with the direct aim of ring-fencing premium content behind a paywall.

In a local market where most news websites would gladly offer news for free in the hope of monetising scale and reach, this had the potential to be controversial. But MacLeod’s conviction in the future of paid-for digital models is absolute. 

During her 12 years working at the Financial Times in London in roles focused on newsroom production, as managing editor and ultimately as head of operations for, she not only witnessed the rollout of the group’s digital strategy but she was instrumental in shaping it. “The Financial Times started this model at least 20 years ago. Working at the FT helped me to understand the importance and economics of excellent  journalism worth paying for.”

Premium content from the big business brands represented on Business Live has been subscription-only since early last year. “Scoops, exclusives and opinion by our best columnists are considered premium content and can only be accessed by digital or print subscribers,” she says.

“Since we have adopted this approach we have seen an improvement on our business subscriber base of close to 30 per cent. This is a very good trend in a declining circulation environment.” 

And, she warns, a paid-for digital strategy is vital for a successful future in a market where, just as in the rest of the world, publishers are witnessing a steady decline in digital display advertising.


Business Live ()


At the moment a freemium model seems to be the correct approach with free to paid-for content running at around 75 per cent to 25 per cent ratios. This remains under constant assessment, and much of the paywall mechanics and site UX will be reworked again later this year.

Tiso Blackstar is also cognisant of the need for revenue diversification. This includes a very active native content division, events team and investments in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, primarily in radio, because the group is witnessing strong revenue potential for radio across the continent. 

They have also built a world-class web content management system, called Cosmos, which is running Tiso Blackstar’s 14 websites already, and is finding purchase globally, with interest from newsrooms in Africa, South America, India, the UK and Israel.

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