As a 38-year-old legacy newspaper, South Africa’s City Press has become well-known for its commitment to investigative journalism and uncovering the truth. But as it moved into a digital environment — a move accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic — it faced the challenge of ensuring that readers still held their trust in the publication.
“We believe that journalism is about accountability,” explained Rhodé Marshall, managing editor of City Press/Media 24, in Thursday’s INMA Africa Media Summit.
“That’s holding power to account as well as being accountable to our audience — our most important resource. Journalism is about an appreciation for truth and thorough authentication of our work.”
However, as new “news” platforms and social media clickbait have invaded the online space, many readers are suspicious of digital sources. For that reason, it has become crucial for brands like City Press to differentiate itself from other digital publications, and that means investing more time into reporting stories.
“It used to be that publishing first was the prize. Now the rise of fake news and inaccurate sourcing means that publishing right is far more important. We earn readers’ trust by meticulous corroboration and fact-checking — and remaining accountable for what we publish,” Marshall said. “The City Press brand lives across platforms, so we apply the same principles on all platforms.”
Print values retained in digital space
It’s no secret print media is facing tremendous challenges that go beyond the proliferation of fake news and fly-by-night digital outlets. Circulation numbers and advertising revenue have plummeted, and the COVID-19 lockdown has only contributed to the decline.
For City Press, the lockdown meant scrambling to quickly learn the needs and behaviours of a digital audience and start reaching them where they live.
“That meant converting our newsroom and traditional way of working and thinking internally by applying the same principles with our digital production as we do with print,” she said.
It meant altering operations to ensure loyal readers get the same experience digitally that they were accustomed to receiving with the Sunday print edition of City Press. And what they found was that audiences made the leap to digital more easily than expected.
“The trick now for us, as an industry, is to remind readers why it is important to invest in journalism on digital platforms in the same way as they invest in print. The substance hasn’t changed, nor has the requirement to get it right. It’s just the delivery method that changes.”
The price of quality journalism
Although City Press expected a decline in readers when it launched a paywall in August, instead the site saw a 38% growth in pageviews from three months earlier. Marshall said those numbers show audiences are still willing to pay for quality journalism.
The responsibility now lies with news media companies, who must provide the kind of journalism that readers will pay for — and to charge for it.
“A unified shift needs to happen within our industry in order for us to sustain journalism and teach audiences to invest in our important work.”
City Press has worked diligently to obtain readers’ trust over the years. She held up Media 24’s Daily Sun print news publication as an example of how important it is to speak to your audience in a tone and a language that they find most relatable.
“People want to feel connected to the brand they are investing in,” Marshall said.
Growing for the future
In addition to building on the newspaper’s nearly four-decade-old reputation for truth and integrity, Marshall said the company are future-proofing the brand by creating a content marketing hub that offers solutions for both readers and clients. One example is the Money Maker project, which each year selects four people to go through a financial boot camp while the paper follows along.
“This has changed the lives of many readers over the years,” she said. “Not just the lives of the people in the boot camp but the readers who follow along as well.”
Such partnerships are effective in creating relevant, useful content that audiences depend upon, which ultimately builds trust in the news brand.
“Because audiences trust us, we can help advertisers communicate in more meaningful ways with our audience. We forged these partnerships between our audiences and brands using our most important skill – which is that we are storytellers.”