Following the sale of South Africa’s Independent News & Media in late 2013, new ownership and subsequent investment drove the transformation/innovation programme of the Independent Group in South Africa.

After 19 years of Irish ownership, Indy SA was “brought home” and required an extreme makeover, from the bottom up. 

A 19-year-old brand with a stable of 15 free community titles and 18 daily and weekend titles — some more than 150 years old — the company had great legacy brands. But there had been no investment, no digital plan, no new products, and the company was mired in cost cutting. 

One year later, Independent News & Media sold to Sekunjalo, bringing not only new ownership, but change management, considerable investment (particularly in digital), six new products, and a structural orientation change from regional to national. 

Insight Innovation Panels give key audience insight through reader interaction.
Insight Innovation Panels give key audience insight through reader interaction.

The first change to come about was improving communication in all regions and areas — externally through town hall meetings, and internally through departmental discussions. 

Following these initial forays, the company held strategic, facilitated conferences involving representatives from all divisions. The contributions from these occasions were analysed and an innovation programme born.

Initially, the strategic programme achieved four goals: 

  1. Through Editor’s Forums, editorial and commercial staff began to share a common objective. 

  2. A Sales Accord released inventory. 

  3. The culture shift from a regional to a national structure broke down silos. 

  4. Considerable investment in digital and staffing kick-started the innovation process.

Out of these changes came both innovation and success. 

• New titles: The Cape Argus, a 160-year-old daily, was a compact conversion experiment that had frankly failed after a promising start. However, it was re-launched in U.S. broadsheet format in September of 2014, and is now an inventory-rich, profitable title with a steady circulation.

The company has also launched a new title in Eastern Cape South Africa named I’solezwe lesiXhosa, a daily newspaper in the isiXhosa language. I’solezwe lesiXhosa is a paid title with a print order of 60,000 copies and is part of Independent Media’s strategy to bring content and advertising to communities in their mother tongue. 

• Specialised business content units: The establishment of specialised business content units is in full progress, with young MBAs sourced for leadership to develop new revenue streams and multi-platform initiatives.

The corporate strategy is to maintain current traditional business units, while simultaneously developing new business verticals. Alongside strong content platforms, these offer niche solutions across the titles to ensure that client requirements are serviced at all levels. 

In addition, the company’s national sales teams (across all divisions) have completed intense training on digital sales to assist clients with a full package solution. A second phase of training is in the planning stage to ensure that lessons learned are acted upon with speed. 

• Insight Innovation Panel (reader panel initiative): This initiative will inform audience development through reader interaction. This is accompanied by weekly surveys across all of the company’s daily, weekly, and digital titles/products.

The initiative reaches 800 respondents on a weekly basis, and the plan is to increase this to 1,500. Ultimately, the Insight database will consist of 10,000 national opted-in respondents (subscribers, regular readers, non-regular readers).

All Insight participants will have an opportunity to win prizes (food vouchers, movie/theatre tickets, sport event tickets, and then the grand lucky draw in March and October, two luxury cruise packages for two) from a bi-monthly drawing. 

• Events: These are a new source of revenue. The company is planning new divisions to ensure that diversification remains a clear focus as the company grows this portfolio. 

• Reader satisfaction and loyalty measurements: These inform the company and, by extension, its advertisers, about, among other things, its overall rating by readers and reader propensity for future use. This initiative also measures media usage habits (frequency, reliance on, credibility, day-after recall, knowledge enhancement, entertainment value, and interest, etc.) for both print and online.

These measurements also serve as a tool for new product evaluation and as a means for ongoing accumulation of data describing lifestyle, leisure, and other reader activities. Included is a description of the readers’ business, work, and intellectual interests, providing the company with an evaluation of newsworthiness and ways that readers seek and use “news.”

• Mobile journalism (MOJO) studios: Launched early this year, these are an experimental first step in the space of new digital storytelling, and an opportunity to introduce print titles to new ways of doing journalism. They are also designed with the goal of helping newsroom staff to overcome any digital “fear.” 

Mobile journalism (MOJO) studios were created to help staff overcome fear of all things digital.
Mobile journalism (MOJO) studios were created to help staff overcome fear of all things digital.

The programme will pair digital-native interns (selected through a rigorous HR process) with the company’s print titles. The interns work with the print titles to identify, propose, develop, and execute short news videos for uploading to the company’s sites. 

Staff has the opportunity to experiment with new tools (e.g., iOS and Android) and to work out the best mobile toolkit for them. “Mojo minute modules” also teach non-natives how to: 

  • Blog.
  • Visualise data.
  • Produce a TV interview.
  • Produce slideshows.
  • Produce multi-media stories with smartphones.
  • Turn a smartphone into a video camera.
  • Turn static photographs into a compelling story.

These are initial steps that will lead to building out a digital editorial strategy. 

“Independent Media South Africa is fully engaged in developing its objective to become Africa’s premier multi-platform media company,” says Sandy Naudé, group executive/direct advertising and community newspapers. “A climate of excitement, necessary agility, and strong investment is evident as considerable company change progresses. 

“The new Independent Media is indeed a place for change innovation and a very good place for our stakeholders to engage on all levels as creative solutions are sourced in our constantly developing media landscape.” 

Editor’s note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “How Media Companies Embrace the Process of Innovation.”