OPINION | Come with the Dispatch into the digital era

The Daily Dispatch has launched a paywall
The Daily Dispatch has launched a paywall
Image: DispatchLIVE

In February it will be three years since I took over as editor of the Dispatch.

Having lived and worked in major cities like Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town, I frequently travel to those towns, where I often encounter acquaintances and friends I made while living there.

Without fail, they are quick to notice the sprinkles of grey in my hair. Those with sharper eyesight also spot the slowly receding hairline.

By now I have developed a ready response – telling them that the grey hairs are a sign of maturity and wisdom, a necessary trait expected from an editor.

This is usually a good ice-breaker and elicits a good laugh all round.I understand the surprise, especially from those living in Jo’burg.

The poor folk who suffocate daily on the polluted and dry Jo’burg air envy those of us living on the coast. They imagine that being an editor in a coastal town should literally be a breeze.

It is anything but. The reality is newspaper print circulation is on the decline, in this country and globally.

This is more acute in poor provinces like the Eastern Cape, where a newspaper must compete with a loaf of bread in a poor household.

This is a headache for editors and publishers alike. Perhaps it explains the grey hairs.

Back to newspapers, the decline is understandable. The digital disruption has changed the way in which readers consume their news. More and more people receive their news on mobile phones and desktops. This means that as media companies we either have to “adapt or die”.

We certainly do not want to go the Kodak route. The silver lining is that despite the downtrend in newspaper circulation, good old journalism will be with us for generations to come. What is changing is the form and medium in which it is presented.

This partly explains why on Monday we introduced a paid subscription offering for the premium content on our website, DispatchLIVE. Basically we are asking readers to pay only R2.20 a day to read the exclusive content we publish online. This is no different from the expectation of a print reader to buy a copy for R6.60 - only that it is cheaper digitally as the price does not include the price of printing and distribution.

There will still be free-to-read articles as we want to make sure that we promote the free flow of information that is crucial for the maturity of our young democracy.

The usual retort whenever paid subscription is mentioned is a threat of a flight to other sources of information. Historically, newspapers have sold columns to advertisers to make money.

This is no longer sustainable as advertising revenue continues to decline while online advertising figures are too miniscule to make a dent to the bottom line.

The reality is journalism costs money and if we are to survive, we have to find new ways to generate revenue.

This is why publishers in this country (think Netwerk24, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian) and globally (New York Times and Washington Post) have introduced paid subscriptions on their sites.

Newsrooms spend money – in salaries, travel, fuel, equipment and bandwidth – to deliver the news every day.

It makes no business sense to spend money to produce the news, only to publish it for free online. No business can survive that way, unless it has generous donors backing it.

You may be wondering why this should matter to you. Well, research has shown that paid subscription works.

But readers are only willing to pay for quality journalism, not just the churning of frivolous content to fill space. That is why the process we are embarking on will also lead to the improvement of the quality of our print offering. Our value offering to you is quality journalism.

We are beefing up our team with some of the best talent in journalism. This will ensure we not only produce compelling digital content but also that our print offering is of the best standard and worth every cent.

That is why our newsroom has adopted a “digital-first, print premium” strategy. Gone are the days when a story will wait for the print edition of the following day to be told.

Now it has to be published in real time, as it happens.

This means the print offering will carry the more in-depth content and analysis.

For the 146 years of its existence, the Dispatch has been part of the Eastern Cape story. It is a trusted institution built on years of award-winning and high quality journalism.

The recognition we continue to get from industry peers – including the recent five-award haul at the regional Vodacom Journalist of the Year Awards earlier this month – is proof that we are doing journalism right.

The rich tradition of investigative journalism continues to be a hallmark of the Daily Dispatch.

This year we won the coveted SA Journalist of the Year Award at the Standard Bank Sikuvile Awards, having done the same in 2015 and in 2016.

Ours success would not have been possible without the support of this community and you, the reader. We also rely on your continued support going forward.

This is our home, and the Dispatch is part of the Eastern Cape community.

To sign up, please visit DispatchLIVE