Business Maverick, Media, Multimedia

Independent rolls out premium content model – Internet, journalism experts underwhelmed

Independent rolls out premium content model – Internet, journalism experts underwhelmed

The Star, The Daily News, Cape Times, Pretoria News, Cape Argus and most other titles in the Independent News & Media (INM) stable literally took their tabloids online as an added-value proposition for subscribers. The result is an exact page-by-page replica of the print title that is both cumbersome and unwieldy to navigate or read. Experts describe the move as “outdated”, “confused” and a “recipe for disaster”.

Think premium. As in premium member, premium service or premium content. Chances are you’re conjuring up images of luxury, ease, convenience or being a part of a special club where you’re lavished with perks, extras and benefits. If you’re a premium content subscriber with Independent News & Media’s (INM) South African titles nothing could be further from the truth.

This reporter recently subscribed to a free seven-day trial with The Star and instead of being offered premium, thought-provoking content, time-saving benefits or special features that could enhance one’s life, the experience proved disappointing. On the screen was an online newspaper virtually impossible to read because the layout is completely counter-intuitive to the web. The experience is a frustrating combination of zooming in and out, waiting for the page to render and fiddling paragraph-by-paragraph to consume a story that’s hardly worth the effort to start with.

Photo: Anton Harber

Journalism and Internet content experts agree that the INM’s premium model leaves much to be desired. “If there is a strategy here, it is opaque,” said Anton Harber, professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Wits University. “It is certainly not a new approach as a number of newspapers have been trying this ‘e-dition’ for a while. It can be useful, but is not much of a premium offering, more of an archive service. It is not likely to attract significant numbers of subscribers, in my opinion. It is last generation.”

Former technology journalist, media analyst and ICT researcher Arthur Goldstuck agrees. “This is a disaster, a recipe for confusion,” he said. “It looks great in terms of seeing exactly what the newspaper looks like, but it is optimised for the print format which means it is very ungainly to try to view. You have to shift the page around the whole time to try to read it.” Goldstuck said in a normal Web browser one tends to scroll down to read, but with The Star “e-dition” one has to try to manipulate the page around the screen. “It is not user-friendly and is, in fact, very difficult to use. A premium content offering should make peoples’ lives easier or add great value, not make things more difficult.”

Watch Sky News insert on introduction of pay-walls at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp:

Media analyst and Media Tenor managing director Wadim Schreiner says people will only pay a premium for content if there’s something additional that they can’t get in the print model. “A great example of this is the UK’s Financial Times that has a great reputation for quality and excellent journalism, so people are prepared to pay a premium for content because they trust the brand. You can only charge for something if you add value,” said Schreiner, who added that the only real market for INM’s offering could be people who own iPads. “The iPad is ideal for A4 type digital editions because you can more easily browse and manipulate the page with your finger. But how many of The Star’s readers have iPads? To my knowledge iPad owners are more likely to read the Sunday Times or Business Day. For a normal PC the format is way too involved, cumbersome and requires too much interaction with the medium to get the information. I have serious doubts whether they will make money out of this,” said Schreiner.

Photo: Arthur Goldstuck

INM contracted NewspaperDirect to deliver the premium offering. NewspaperDirect describes itself as “a world leader in content distribution and monetization” with 1,000 publications from 84 countries in 40 languages on its books, yet its offering remains notoriously difficult to read.

“Across the world, these types of e-editions are not big,” said Matthew Buckland former GM of Mail & Guardian Online and founder of Creative Spark Interactive and “The problem is that the model has not attracted volumes and remains a niche. Most readers find e-editions, essentially a print edition on the web, difficult to use and navigate. They prefer either the website or the print edition.”

Photo: Matthew Buckland

INM’s premium content model illustrates that newspapers are still battling to find paid content models that work. What INM has right is to introduce a model that is reasonably cost-efficient. What it has wrong is to make its premium offering devoid of any real value. The “e-dition” model is a bother, not a boon.

Other media players have done much worse though. A case in point is the US-based Newsday that spent $4 million to put up a pay-wall in October 2009. Three months later the site managed to sign up all of 35 people to their $5-a-week subscription plan. Now that’s some scary newspaper economics.

By Mandy de Waal

Read The New York Observer’s article on Newsday’s pay-wall disaster. Read The Economist article “Newspapers – The strange survival of ink.” Read The Daily Maverick’s article “Online’s murky new dawn: New York Times about to charge.” and “What could Murdoch be thinking?”

Watch Katie Couric interview Daily Beast co-founder Barry Diller about whether people will pay for content:


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