Independent Media received three awards at the INMA Global Media Awards. Picture: Independent Media

Digital first, print best. The future of the media industry in South Africa lies in understanding who our real audience is as journalists, and to strive to inform, educate and sometimes irritate through hard hitting, in-depth, steadfast and intrepid reporting in the world of multimedia journalism.

What is the future of journalism, and in the world of technological advancements, is it the end for print? Where does investigative journalism fit in a world where most readers consume news in bite-size chunks? Is there a market for in-depth analysis in an environment where industry experts believe that people do not respond to long form stories that are 500 words in length or more?

It is not the end just yet for the local print industry in South Africa, a country widely regarded as having developmental nation challenges with First World problems.

The future of print journalism is still alive and well if the profession can be presented in a way that will not only create new markets for millennials and future generations, but also aims to continuously captivate current and new readers.

Creating new markets and growing print can be achieved with the right frame of mind, willpower, energy and the embracing of new technological advancements in an era where mediums of communication are continuously changing at an accelerated pace.

Last week, Independent Media participated extensively in the International News Media Association (INMA) World Congress which took place in New York City, attended by global media representatives. The company also scooped three major awards in different categories. INMA is the world’s leading provider of global best practices for news media companies looking to grow revenue, audience and brands in markets that are continuously changing on a daily basis.

Arguably, one of the most informative seminars was a one-on-one interview with the executive editor of the New York Times, Dean Baquet, who spoke extensively on the future of the print media industry and the increasing importance of digital innovation.

According to Baquet, to grow digitally, one must first understand the audience. Many newspaper houses went in head-first into the digital world without fully grasping who their audience was in this space. “Now we talk about our audience every day in our daily meeting. Does that mean we chase clicks? No. It means we want to understand what people are reading. We want to understand what time we should publish to make it to them,” he said. He said the New York Times had become a very different newsroom compared to what it was.

“We take risks. We screw up. We try stuff. But I think the boldest thing we’ve done is to openly embrace our audience, to openly move away from just writing traditional news stories, to openly embrace having a television show, a podcast, and to say: We can tell stories in many different ways. Let’s try it.”

Journalism, from a global standpoint, still has a future and can still be regarded as an attractive profession as it has grown and morphed into different streams of communication with the rise of technology and the fourth industrial revolution.

With video, online, mobile, tablet and desktops being the primary means of news consumption, now more than ever, print media needs to redefine its role in maintaining its readership base while expanding and appealing to new international markets.

There are some print media brands in South Africa that are more than a 100 years old, yet they have not been able to position themselves as leading international brands that champion the African narrative to the rest of the world in a similar fashion to what global leaders such as the New York Times and USA Today have done.

In a feedback session, the chief executive of INMA, Earl Wilkinson spoke of podcast monetisation, where presenters explained that their listenership was made up of disproportionately affluent young adult listeners and was deeply engaging, with 80% of podcasts consumed from beginning to end. “As of May 2019, podcasts are being used for top-of-the-funnel engagement. I’m not seeing too many examples of podcasts being behind a paygate or a paywall,” said Wilkinson.

Could this be an opportunity that media companies can explore?

The answer is not clear. However, this viewpoint reinforces Baquet’s assertion that there are so many more things to do with journalism in its presentation to a wider audience. This includes drawing a synergy with technologists.

“There’s video - I’m probably the first executive editor of The New York Times who cannot do the job of half the people in the newsroom,” said Baquet.

“I think technologists should be an important part of the discussion in the newsroom. But at the end of the day, the newsroom should be led by the people who, when they get called by the CIA who say, ‘Don’t report this’, who understand why the reasons should almost always be we’re going to do it anyway. Those are journalists.”

He is also of the view that the greatest crisis in American journalism is the death of local news.

“I don’t know what the answer is. Their economic model is gone. I think most local newspapers in America are going to die in the next five years, except for the ones that have been bought by a local billionaire. I think that everybody who cares about news - myself included, and all of you - should take this on as an issue. Because we’re going to wake up one day and there are going to be entire states with no journalism or with little tiny pockets of journalism.”

What does this mean in the South African and African context? The continent is widely viewed as the next frontier for global economic growth - and its media industry should not be treated any differently.

* Mdluli is a special investigations reporter at Independent Media and was part of the South African delegation at the INMA world congress in New York.