The rise of ‘news as a service’ in South Africa

I was haunted by one presenter’s simple, hand-drawn graphic that showed how between 2001-2012, Google’s digital ad sales had eclipsed the US’s total newspaper print ad sales.

In a column called “Nothing is as it was anymore”, I wrote: All over the world there is much innovation happening in the search for the Holy Grail, a digital model that will generate new sources of income to arrest declining print revenues. There are no clear answers, but the hard fact is that you can’t play if you’re not in the game, and those who ignore this could end up paying a heavy price down the line when the music finally stops for print as we know it.”

Newspaper vs Google ad sales ()

I ended with a warning: “At the moment Google, more than anyone, is eating newspapers’ lunch and unless we find a way to fight back, they could soon be scoffing down our dessert too.”

Sadly in Africa my words are proving true – although it’s no longer just Google pigging out on what was once the media’s advertising lifeblood. Others have jumped onto the bandwagon and are playing in areas where media should be active. Meanwhile, many newspapers and magazines dither and refuse to invest innovation or to try new things, doggedly sticking to old ways.

Our latest failing is in grabbing the opportunities offered by so-called “service journalism” or “news journalism” that could drive online traffic, create engagement for media and help grow new and existing communities to be monetised in the search for new revenue opportunities as traditional streams slow down or evaporate.

In a presentation “news as a service”, at the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, Professor Harry Dugmore, director of the Discovery Centre for Health Journalism at South Africa’s Rhodes University, explained the concept.

“The delivery of new information (news?) that helps our audience do something or plan for something: i.e. to make both short and long terms decisions. The radical implications of “news as a service” have not been easily embraced by journalists. From classified ads to weather alerts, news organisations have lost almost every opportunity to provide utility.”

He threw in a quote from American journalism professor Jeff Jarvis to make his case: “Perhaps defining ourselves as content creators is a trap. That workflow convinces us that our value is embodied entirely in what we make rather than in the good value people derive from it.” 

There are a growing number of new tech innovations, interactive apps, tools and web sites delivering information that helps readers make sense of things. But few are coming from the media – these innovations are more often the work of independent developers, many of them frustrated in their day jobs, who are doing it for the public good rather than for profit.

In South Africa the examples of media developing “news you can use” are few and far between. They include simple apps developed to help consumers keep track of euphemistically named “load shedding” – planned blackouts to deal with a power supply crisis in South Africa. Good examples are Grid Watch by and this one by Eyewitness News.  A third loadshedding app, Shed Alert, was built privately and is available free in the Google Play Store.

A good example of a free app for community good rather than profit is MobiSAM app, built by two friends who’d grown tired of moaning about poor service delivery in Grahamstown, a South African university town. Their app, which has also spawned a Facebook page, helps users monitor the performance of the local municipality, to alert other users to problems and to lodge complaints.

In South Africa where the maximum price that can be charged for medicines is set by law, a free medicines prices tool allows users to easily check prices they’re being charged and also find cheaper generic alternatives. Imagine if this open source app, which is free to use for anyone, was picked up by a media house that used it as a way to drive traffic, attract readers, sell ads off the back of it and engage people so they spent longer on the site? Built by the Cape Town-based tech-for-good Code for South Africa this is yet another example of media failing to capitalise on a good, free idea that anyone can publish on their own site.

Or how about this privately built, free GoMetro transport app with information on bus, train and taxis routes in several major South African cities. With real-time updates, including from other commuters, it is a powerful mobile app used daily by thousands of people. Now imagine the same – or similar – branded app – from a media company, with all the potential advertising and brand and community building potential this offers.

One media group that is pioneering new revenue streams in Africa is Kenya’s The Star group’s innovative Star Health portal where readers get free access to access to relevant health-related news. And, for the cost of a premium rated SMS they can check up on “dodgy doctors”, find out at which National Health Insurance Fund hospitals they can get treatment and also search for their closest specialist doctor or health facility. Built by Code for Kenya all the underlying code open source and free to re-use, yet so far no other media have done so. 

Chris Roper, a senior Knight Fellow who is helping manage the International Center for Journalist’s Code for Africa data journalism initiatives in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania, believes the explanation for the failure by media to explore new ways of doing things is a simple one:  “Media houses view innovation as a threat, not an opportunity,” he says.

Which begs the question: do you want to be the one serving up enticing meals or end up as lunch, in the same way that Google and the Craig’s Lists of the word ended up scoffing a huge chunk of the media’s advertising pie?

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