Paywalls in SA inevitable: expert

Former editor of the Mail & GuardianAnton Harber says the shift in South African media to put more online news behind a paywall as “inevitable”, but has stopped short of predicting the end of traditional newspapers.

At the start of April, Afrikaans publications Beeld, Volksblad and Die Burger – functioning under the Naspers brand – announced their intention to adopt a digital first method of operation, breaking news online, and charging a fee for accessing content.

In a similar move, the Sunday Times did away with its free online content model in June 2012 already, while BusinessDay has also gone behind a paywall.

 Declining sales

According to Professor Harber, who directs the Journalism and Media Studies Programme at Wits University, one of the biggest problems facing the media sector is decline in newspaper sales.

“Most newspaper sales have been in quite severe decline now for the past two years, reversing a trend of previous years. There are just a couple of exceptions, mainly the Zulu language newspapers, but we’re starting to see the effects of recession plus the effects of new media.”

“But the big problem is that with advertising revenue falling, particularly in the business sector, it hasn’t been matched yet by growth in the new media internet sector,” he told SummitTV.

Anton Harber
Anton Harber

Newspaper extinction

When questioned on whether he thinks traditional newspapers might become extinct, Harber said: “I certainly don’t. I think newspapers will shift and change.”

He opined, however, that they would shrink due to a readership migrating online – “it’s just so much quicker and cheaper that a great deal of the consumption news will continue to move online”.

The professor said that certain products in print, as in books, still work much better in print, which have a lasting tactile value.

“It’s particular kinds of books, particular kinds of print products that will continue to command a premium in print, but most general news consumption I have no doubt will move to the digital sphere,” he said.

Pay for it

“I think the big shift we’re likely to see in the coming months is more and more online news going behind a paywall — we’re going to have to pay for it because advertising is not paying for it. So I think it’s inevitable that paywalls are going to go up, as they are in many of the major Western capitals and countries in their newspapers…,” the media expert said.

He said that media houses were facing the problem where advertising hasn’t produced the kind of revenue needed to sustain online news media.

Harber cited a number of reasons: “One is that advertising is much more thinly spread now; and the second, I think, is because at the moment the most effective online advertising is Google.”

“And they are so effective and so powerful that they’re stealing most of the revenue. So paywalls — I think the debate over paywalls is over, it’s inevitable that these operations can’t continue to give away their news and information for free,” he said.

In December, Naspers CEO Koos Bekker said that the print business has two forces working against it.

“The one is cyclical – so in a recession people cut advertising, before they cut any other cost. So newspapers, [with] 50% of their revenue coming from advertising, are going to be quite susceptible to the pace of the economy,” Bekker said.

Bekker noted that the second problem was that of the Internet eating into print’s market.

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Paywalls in SA inevitable: expert