As media houses debate how to make money from web-based news, Duncan McLeod’s TechCentral has been profitable from day one. In just over two years, it’s added to the quality of South African tech reporting and edged towards the readership of its established rivals. It shows just how far good standing and a great idea can take you. By GREG NICOLSON.
Before McLeod’s TechCentral went live, the former Financial Mail tech journalist had already secured long-term advertising for the technology and communications news website. It was an impressive start in an industry where companies across the world had been bashing their heads against a wall to find a profitable model. Now, with 204,000 page views from 119,000 visits and 67,000 unique readers in February, TechCentral is starting to rival established names like ITWeb.
Since its launch in 2009, McLeod has edited and managed the company with another full-time employee and used a string of freelance writers. In 12 years at the Financial Mail, he established himself as a leading South African technology writer, winning the Telkom ICT Journalist of the Year Award and MyBroadband People’s Choice Journalist of the Year. He watched as established newspapers folded and saw the writing on the wall for the print industry. Simultaneously, he thought web-based tech journalism in SA was “fairly poor” and saw a gap in the market.
“It’s certainly made everyone else lift their game. It’s brought a lot more diversity to it,” said Toby Shapshack, editor of Stuff magazine. “Duncan has a really good reputation as a tech journalist. He has an eye for a good story. He probably breaks more stories than any other tech journalist… If you’re going to read one IT website he makes a compelling case that his is the one.”
TechCentral is now a leading example of online news and analysis publication that competes in quality with its print rivals. “We really want to be seen as the thought leaders of the space and produce the quality journalism that the industry requires. I think there’s a lot of online reporting, and I’m not necessarily saying ITWeb is guilty of this, but there certainly are a lot of sites in South Africa that produce a poor quality of tech journalism. And I hope we’re lifting the game and producing the quality you’d expect in more traditional journalism rather than blog sites.”
Photo: Duncan McLeod. DAILY MAVERICK/Greg Nicolson.
Speaking to Daily Maverick in a café not far from his Randburg, Johannesburg, office, McLeod described how he started the business. “I did a lot of planning. I don’t like to just jump into things. I want to make sure it will work before I do it. So I spent six months before I left the FM just talking to guys in the industry and basically getting their buy-in and support.” He’d never aspired to own his own publication and was nervous at the prospect, but through planning, his good standing in the industry and those 18-hour days, McLeod has made TechCentral a success. “I was fortunate enough to have those relationships from early on to get that advertising in, which ensured the site was profitable from day one and it’s been profitable ever since.”
“It’s amazing how quickly it’s grown. Duncan’s done a great job… It’s become one of the first sites I visit in the morning when I’m trawling around for news,” said technologist Simon Dingle.
Making money from online news is as hard as people say it is, said McLeod, but the relationships he forged in his time as a print journalist was essential to establishing TechCentral. “It’s all about relationships. If you’re just going to go out there and say to advertising agencies, ‘These are our numbers,’ it’s not going to happen.” Especially in the niche tech sector, he said. “I don’t think if you came into this space and you put up a technology website without those existing relationships, even if you’re producing great content, you’re going to make a profit.”
But McLeod’s network of relationships and experience had to be matched by business nous, a trait not immediately associated with writers. He used an accountant from the get-go and learned to watch the company’s cash flow “like a hawk”. But he handled advertising sales, the core feature of his business model. “I think that was useful at first because it gave me a real feel for the business and where the revenue comes from and the costs and everything. But I think it’s time for someone to come in and take over and drive it more heavily,” said McLeod, a polite conversationalist. “If (there’s) anything I’ve done wrong in running this business it’s that I haven’t focused enough on the sales side of things. The business is profitable but we could probably be a lot more profitable than we are if we had a dedicated sales resource to chase revenue.”
McLeod, who is the sole owner of TechCentral’s parent company NewsCentral Media, has taken his business to “the level where advertising agencies approach us” but maintains, “My first love is journalism and news.” His passion for technology and communication is also clear. He doesn’t mind staying after the interview to chat about the upcoming release of Windows 8 or a cell phone he’s reviewed and is genuinely excited even when explaining them to someone who doesn't understand much.
As a respected journalist with established relationships with key figures in the industry, McLeod has used his experience and learned how to run a business to turn that investment into a profit. Now, he said, “The challenge is to really consolidate the platform and really grow from it and build up a bigger resource in what is without doubt a competitive space. So we have to produce better quality content than our rivals, build that audience through organic growth and also through smart partnerships.”
It will be positive step for web-based news, which in the technology sector has improved since TechCentral’s launch in 2009. With increased competition and the time to sort what works from what doesn’t, it features a higher quality of journalism. No doubt TechCentral’s played a role and, as so many fly-by-night companies come and go, it’s figured out how to make a profit.
He’s had to work long hours to build the business and time is tight, but he says the rewards outweigh the costs. “You’re doing it for yourself. It’s different. It’s not like you are sitting in a corporate office working for your paycheck. I mean, I enjoyed it; it was good and I put a lot of effort into it. But when you’re doing it for yourself and you’re running a small business, it’s yours. It’s yours to screw up. It’s yours to make a success of. I don’t feel it’s a chore. You’re having fun. You’re investing in yourself.” DM
Photo: TechCentral is now a leading example of online news and analysis publication. SCREENGRAB/TechCentral.