Marketers often argue that online advertising is a sure-fire way to get more attention on your brand because it doesn't have a barrier or paywall blocking the users' access to content. But this doesn't guarantee a steady flow of revenue.

Paywalls are a digital method that online publishers use to restrict full access to content by using a paid subscription. Users can only access specific content after paying a fee. This is often used by digital content providers, which includes online news publications, newspapers websites and blogs.

media update's Pamela Manzenze explores how paywalls will shape the future of journalism in South Africa.

The state of journalism

The State of the Newsroom report 2020 details the severe impact that the Covid-19-induced lockdown has had on the industry. A bloodbath of job cuts, retrenchments, business closures and falling advertising revenue has forced news publishers to lean on the paywall subscription model to sustain quality journalism.

Public trust in South African journalism has been raised at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, also known as the Zondo Commission, where it came to light that several journalists had been paid to retract and publish certain stories. Paywalls help to ensure that skilled journalists helm reliable and trustworthy reporting free of interference.

SA's print industry has also grappled to hold the reins amid plunging profits. The Audit Bureau Circulation of SA's data for Q1 in 2020 confirmed that newspaper circulation numbers have declined significantly in the past year. This means consumers are increasingly relying on digital platforms for their news.

Additionally, the internet has become the most popular communication tool in SA. According to the 2021 Global Digital Report, SA ranks fourth in the list of countries with the fastest-growing internet usage.

Paywalls are making a splash

Among other online news publications that use paywalls, Times Live and Sunday Times have been relying on a subscription service since 2018 that is available at R30 a day and R80 per month.

News24 followed suit in August 2020 by launching a paywall freemium service that would be available for R75 per month. This means breaking news remains free to read while investigative or in-depth articles are charged for. News24 rolled out this model to sustain and deliver quality journalism over the long term.

But the big question is, why should readers pay for something that they previously saw for free?

In an interview with media update, News24 editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson said, "It has become evident to media companies that we cannot build a sustainable future of quality journalism based solely on advertising revenue. News is a commodity, it costs money to create".

Providing quality content is costly as journalists have to be paid for their skills, fact-based and unique stories. Good journalism can’t be sustained if it's not funded and the possible way to invest in it is through paywalls.

Basson explains, "There is a massive cost that goes into producing journalism. I think because for many years we gathered content on the internet, there was a perception that news should be free where it never really was free, if you think about it".

Reading content for free is like going to watch a movie in the cinema without paying for the ticket. Without the revenue generated from ticket sales, the theatre will not be able to afford to bring in the most recent films on-demand.

Digital transformation has accelerated the demands of online readers who still want to be informed and educated while looking at their screens. As a result, online publications are encouraged to provide quality, trusted and independent journalism. And those are the key elements that turn casual news readers into subscribers. 

Basson adds, "News publishers need to keep the quality of their journalism at a level where readers feel it's justified to pay for it". 

By the end of last year, News24 had reached 20 000 subscribers in just three months. This proves that trusted, quality content matters the most to readers — and that's exactly why they keep coming back for more. If quality content is put behind a paywall, readers will be more than willing to pay for it. Good journalism that online readers are willing to pay for will certainly ensure the future of this industry.

Do you think the paywall subscription service will shape the future of journalism in SA? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Paywalls and subscription models have cropped up in SA as the advertising system falls. This has led to many people wondering:  How much do media subscriptions actually cost?
*Image courtesy of Canva