Business Day goes ‘digital first’, erects paywall

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Business Day, a leading South African newspaper, is set to make the leap from “paper first” to “digital first” before eventually erecting a paywall around its content.

According to the paper’s editor Peter Bruce:

Business Day will, very soon now, become a “digital first” news brand. We will begin to publish what we know when we know it on our newly designed website first, and make the newspaper after that. Then, a few months after that we’ll wrap a mesh around the website and the applications (apps, they’re called) we have on iPhones and iPads and our stories — our product — will be for sale as BDlive.

Bruce says that the paywall is necessary and may well be the only way to save Business Day “as a newspaper in the long term”. “Unless we do this”, he says “SA can kiss goodbye to its own stand-alone daily business newspaper”.

“No industry I know of has been hit on as many fronts as the newspaper industry in the past decade. The financial crisis has throttled advertising. The internet has changed the technology of news delivery beyond recognition,” he adds.

The paywall will not, apparently, be as strict as others in the industry. In Bruce’s words “BDLive will leak like crazy. There’ll be stories for free even before we ask you merely to register and more before we ask you to pay us anything”.

The decision to go digital will however dramatically change the look and feel of Business Day’s paper product:

In print, we will change dramatically, but over time — after a day of reporting on the web there is no point repeating it all the next morning. So expect not only a different and exciting newspaper in our digital future, but a different kind of newspaper — reflective, forward-looking and planned.

The paper’s parent company Avusa has been experimenting with paywalls on its various publications since 2010. In fact, the move to Business Day behind a paywall has been in the works for some time now with Bruce its most fervent advocate.

That’s hardly surprising when you consider his opinion of online publications that are going to try keep going without one, calling them “brave with other people’s money”.

While some remain sceptical, there are instances of the paywall model working. Digital subscriptions on the New York Times have grown 12% since March to 500 000. While that growth didn’t drastically increase revenue for the newspaper, it did help circulation revenue pull even with adspend. As the number of subscribers grow, that will only increase.

There are parallels with Business Day. Both target a well-educated, relatively high-income readership. That readership is willing to pay for quality content. But if Business Day’s going to make its digital offering work, then that emphasis on quality must come above everything else.

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