During the two-day INMA Africa News Summit, sponsored by the Google News Initiative, Ben Yedder, group publisher and managing director, shared the story of the media company his father founded and how its digital-first mindset helps continue its unique selling point.
Letting Africa tell its story
The business was founded by Ben Yedder’s father in 1974, when he bought several legacy publications, Ben Yedder said. There are four pillars to the business, — publishing, events, agency, and business intelligence — and he said the publishing pillar is “core to who we are.”
Throughout the company’s history, “we were media that was putting Africa’s interests first,” Ben Yedder said. “We were known in the market because of this unique proposition: that we put forward a different Africa narrative than Western media groups.”
IC Publications’ objective is to “put forward a narrative of an Africa that is globally competitive,” he said. “We wanted to change the perceptions of Africa while also putting forward this narrative that defended Africa’s interests and let Africa tell its story.”
Transforming to a digital-first model has helped with this objective, Ben Yedder said, because the existing distribution network for print media was never fully functional. A print distribution model is also much more expensive to run, although they do still have a substantial print footprint.
Digital first is a mindset
Ben Yedder emphasised that “digital first” is more of a mindset — not something you can check off as finished.
“For me, we haven’t yet succeeded completely in reaching ‘digital first,’” he said, “because it’s a journey.”
While it can be argued that social media has a certain amount of “first-mover advantage” in it, he said, with the news media, “you’re only as good as your last piece, so it’s relatively democratic. You can try things and always improve, enhance, and learn from them.”
Two sides of sustainability
Ben Yedder described the two sides to the sustainability discussion. The obvious one is the revenue side. For IC Publications, the pillars help diversify revenues and they also complement one another. They’re able to leverage content, relationships, and networking through events and event consultancy for third parties whose agendas they support. They help other organisations tell their own stories via the agency pillar. And they produce premium content (such as proprietary research) through the business intelligence pillar on topics like climate, energy, and elections.
The other side of sustainability, though, is the cost side. “You need to be conscious of what you can afford and not get overextended,” he said. “That’s held us back to some extent,” with “less money going into media as an asset class than there is in other markets, our growth is largely organic and therefore limited.”
And while having diverse pillars in the company certainly helps with sustainability, he said even more important is how impactful journalism is related to sustainability — because “if you’re not sustainable, your impact will be limited or short-lived.”
The business of gray matter
Ben Yedder brought up the example of Nigeria’s media market, which he thinks is incredibly crowded, and mentioned that consolidation may be beneficial for a couple of reasons.
“Ultimately, we’re in the business of gray matter,” he said, “so we need talented people. Part of why I argue for consolidation is that I want to see journalists be better paid. And I’d also like the overall standard of journalism to increase.” Stronger media groups could, he said, pay higher wages and attract better talent — though he also said he tells his teams that “we have a responsibility to train our journalists so they can improve.”
Ben Yedder also talked about the importance of partnerships, which allow IC Publications to remain lean. “Through partnerships, we’ve been able to punch above our weight,” he said. “I’m always looking for possible partnerships and opportunities for collaboration.”
Know who you are
The assumption is sometimes that digital news consumers have shorter attention spans, but Ben Yedder said they find their readers want long-form, “high-brow” content. They do produce different styles of content, including shorter pieces, but there are also data-heavy articles and long-form features.
“We’re going to continue to invest in the newsroom,” he said. “It’s the main focus for us.” And, regardless of the style of a particular piece of content, “in terms of quality, it’s the same kind of intellectual investment we’re putting in.
“The African continent is still misunderstood in many ways, as much by Africans as by people outside the continent,” he continued. “We are driven by an African agenda — I can’t emphasise that enough — it’s our North Star” that helps the newsroom and beyond.
“In some ways our media has been instrumental in pushing some agenda-setting arguments that were supportive of the continent, so it was extremely important to know who we are.”
The newsroom is completely independent, Ben Yedder said. His only “interference,” what he makes sure the team is always thinking about, is tied to that North Star — “is whether we have the tone right and whether we’re defending Africa’s interests.”
Complete coverage of the two-day summit can be found here.