Digital ABC: The ultimate playbook in tackling media disruption

Early this month, the WAN-IFRA’s Women In News programme launched the second module of its unique training course, Digital ABC. This essential three-module guide is aimed at helping media managers and journalists confront the disruption in traditional media, and build and operationalise strategies to manage the transition to digital.

We spoke to one of its developers, Lisa MacLeod, a publishing consultant with FT Strategies and former head of digital at Tiso Blackstar (now Arena Holdings) in South Africa. She has more than 25 years of experience in print-to-digital convergence and transition programmes, and works with the WIN programme as a contributor, trainer and advisory consultant. Here, she shares her vision for Digital ABC.

You’ve built a career around the print-to-digital convergence that is increasingly taking root across the world. What have been some of the most memorable moments for you?

So many! In the early days, it was really difficult to get momentum on changing things in the newsroom. 

I’ve seen some tantrums: a colleague broke their computer monitor in anger – another gentleman refused to use the right-click button on their mouse, which made it quite difficult to teach him anything – mainly just meltdowns because there was so much change happening and at a fast pace.

But I have lots of really good memories too – it was a very proud moment working at the Financial Times when digital subscription numbers surpassed print for the first time, and launching our first paywall on BusinessLive at Arena Holdings in Johannesburg was an amazing feeling – especially when the revenue started flowing!

I have always worked with exceptional colleagues and teams who understand what to do and why, and that has brought me the greatest memories, successes – and laughs.

My most memorable and proudest moment in the past few years has been working with Women in News. I believe wholeheartedly in gender equality in newsrooms, and have always mentored or tried to uplift the women I work with, so the time I have done with the WIN team has been personally gratifying. 

Women in News this October launched Modules A and B of the Digital ABC programme. What was the thinking behind the setting up this three-module programme?

Melanie Walker, and and the WIN team and I realised there was a real gap in the market in understanding the basics of digital. There were a lot of training sessions out there aimed at journalists, a lot aimed at managers, and many aimed at the northern hemisphere in terms of the advanced nature of newsrooms and the understanding of digital. 

What was missing was something with case studies, numbers and relevance for developing nations, and also something that really explained the mechanics or role of digital in newsrooms. 

Digital ABC comprises three modules – A is the foundations of digital, and covers the importance of data and customer-centricity; understanding the digital ecosystem, including the economics of advertising; digital journalism; how to monetise in a digital world; and how to manage workflows in digital newsrooms. 

B is more strategically focused and centred on five pillars: technology, customer, organisation and culture, strategy, and operations. The aim of this module is to reinforce planning and thinking ahead. 

Module C is being developed and will be taught by my friend and long-time FT colleague Lyndsey Jones, who is an expert in change management.

What kind of impact would you like the programme to have on the participants who sign up?

First prize for me would be to see more of the female participants in the courses rise up the management ranks and take their place as executives. Overall, I’m hoping that demystifying digital in newsrooms will lead to a greater willingness to experiment in the space and help solidify business models for the future. 

In your estimation, what’s the potential for reader-generated revenue in African newsrooms?

I think it is greater than I had originally estimated – understanding, especially from my experience in South Africa, the low willingness and ability to pay. There have thus far been very few paywalls in Africa beyond South Africa, but in the past year, the bigger players on the continent are forging forward with reader revenue strategies. 

The Nation Media Group and the Standard Group in Kenya are both examples, and others will follow. As always, I’m sure we will see some innovative new ways in Africa to explore reader revenue opportunities, too.

Covid-19 forced an aggressive push towards a digital news ecosystem – what are some of the opportunities that have arisen that newsrooms can make use of to sustain traffic in a post-pandemic future?

I think Covid-19 was a huge shock for many newsrooms that had left digital change too late – the pandemic really forced the hand of executives into thinking of a print-newspaper-free future. The e-edition really made a comeback and seems to have held its own as a digital product, but I think those newsrooms that managed to get reader revenue streams up and running will be the ones who really benefit long term. 

Their challenge will be retention. Experiments with other formats like podcasts have helped hold reader attention, too – but globally, newsrooms are already seeing a correction in traffic from the enormous highs of Covid-19 coverage. 

What do you think are some of the most underutilised digital strategies in newsrooms that are looking to boost revenue and audience engagement online?

Not a strategy exactly, but most newsrooms really underinvested in good technology. Slow sites that take ages to load, poor navigation, poor reader experience, shoddy design – these are ubiquitous problems on publisher sites that only really exist to serve their readers. Engagement depends on the reader having a good experience, and advertisers depend on that, too – so there’s no excuse to have a site suffering from slowness and latency. 

What one thing do you wish more people understood or appreciated about the transition to digital from more traditional media platforms?

I wish that executives were more open to learning about digital, open to training and education in the digital ecosystem, and that they understood more fully the opportunities in digital instead of continuing to pour resources into print alone. 

Customers completely understand the benefit of mobile news and information, but our industry seems determined to be slow to change, adjust and meet their needs. But saying that, there are so many brilliant minds out there with so much energy – I think we will get through this crisis. 

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