African broadcast TV news going online and multi-platform – One broadcasters’ story points the way to the future

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TV news in Africa is an important element in the TV schedule and as a draw for audiences. But how people get their news is changing rapidly and the African broadcasters that understand the digital transition will be more competitive. Russell Southwood spoke to Timothy Spira, eNCA’s Head of the Online Division to try and sort out what will work now and in the future.

In a major piece of market research we carried out in 2014, we ran a number of qualitative research groups looking at how Africans in several different countries were accessing their news. (See Qualitative Research)

This research contained many things that were obvious but a number of key things that were less obvious. In a country like South Africa, the mobile phone (especially smart and featurephones) allows people to be connected to news whenever they want to look at it throughout the day. So they “snack” at convenient moments whether on the journey to work, throughout the working day or at home watching TV or listening to the radio.

The same pattern also emerged in some of the more developed markets like Tanzania and Senegal. The latter currently has 52% smartphone penetration. The speed of this shift from getting news from the TV in particular as the most important source to it becoming one of several sources will happen across the continent. The only thing that will differ from country to country will be the speed of change.

South Africa’s eNCA is a news organization that produces a 24 hour news channel that goes out on DStv and does the news broadcast’s on its parent company eTV. Also included in its output are two vernacular language channels, one in Zulu and the other in Afrikaans.

Spira came to eNCA from print media where he said it was much easier in some ways to persuade newspapers to make the transition to digital. Circulations were (and continue) slumping and the threat to their existence was in Spira’s words “existential”.

”Broadcast and online was challenging for that reason. That said, there were a number of factors that make broadcast news for online than print is. For one thing, the rythms of 24 hour news are more similar. You’re producing news on a constant basis as opposed to chasing a daily deadline.”

The other thing that’s happened over the last period has been the steady uptake of both Internet and social media, spurred by cheaper Internet access on 3G enabled handsets. Four years ago when Spira arrived, the two big platforms were Blackberry Messenger and MXit: the former is a shadow of its once dominant presence and the latter closed last autumn.

“While the names of the platforms have changed somewhat it was already clear at that stage that people were looking to consume news across multiple platforms, that people were looking for news to follow them and that mobile was becoming an increasingly important source of news along with social media.”

Spira sees online as a helpful supporter of broadcast news, which remains the dominant medium. He says that if you take eNCA’s news channel on DStv, it has just under a million viewers on a yesterday basis. By contrast, its website had 1.5 million unique views in the last month and its followers on social media (largely Facebook and Twitter) are over 1 million. Video is attracting significant levels of interest: a number of videos have had “tens of millions of views over a year.”

Looking forward Spira thinks two things will be important: video and the “centrality of social media” Video increasingly gets easier as bandwidth improves and bandwidth access charges continue to inch down.

African companies that have multiple platforms – radio, TV, mobile, online, press – are all going to have to think through both how they manage their news output and organize across these several platforms.

A number of attempts have been made to create multi-platform newsrooms with different degrees of success. The technology is now so cheap that it’s possible to shoot video, use the audio for radio and make the video interview the basis for a written article, both for print and online. The only challenge is how much each individual journalist can handle and the degree to which they can successfully negotiate the big differences between each of these different media. And do their own social media….

Watch Timothy Spira, Head of Online, eNCA talk about the shift to digital in TV news in greater detail on the link here:

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