The brave new world of BDlive

David Bullard on Business Day's shift from print to digital

If you're planning a night on the tiles and looking for some lively company then may I suggest that you don't invite anybody involved in the newspaper industry. A more gloomy bunch it would be hard to imagine and it's not difficult to see why. Newspaper sales are falling worldwide which is obviously bad for business. But that's not because people no longer want to read a newspaper. It's more a matter of technical advancement.

As a child I vaguely remember my mother washing our clothes in the kitchen sink, putting them through a couple of rollers which she had to operate by hand to get rid of the excess moisture and hanging them out to dry on a clothes horse in the kitchen because it was always raining outside. Monday was always known as washing day in the England of the 1950's and for good reason. It would take all day to do the washing. Then along came the front load washing machine and the gloom of the Monday wash day was on the way out.

Then there were records. To those of us who grew up with vinyl there will always be something special about putting a record on the turntable and gently lowering the needle until the familiar scuffing sound gave way to the opening bars of Led Zep. The trouble with records though was that you had to get up and turn them over every twenty minutes or so. Hardly surprising then that CD's became a huge hit in the 1980's and that record shops went out of business.

The compact disc was just a far more efficient way of delivering music to the masses, and much easier to store and transport than a record. Until the advent of the iPod that is. So now you can walk around with a gadget that is smaller than a cigarette packet and listen to your entire music collection wherever and whenever you want. Would anyone seriously consider bringing back the long playing record as a challenge to that?

Much the same has happened to the newspaper industry and while newspapers are some way off complete extinction there is now a far superior way of delivering information in the form of the internet.

But the transition from newspaper to digital hasn't been easy. Old hands in the business have a fondness for newsprint and like to say that ink runs in their veins. It reminds me of the abolition of open outcry trading in the world's stock exchanges in favour of computer trading. Some broker's refused to adapt, others just didn't get the message that open outcry was facing extinction. Those who moved on and embraced electronic trading prospered.

The mistake most newspapers have made is to shove everything that appeared on the printed page onto a website and not to charge for it. This was fine and dandy when comparatively few people owned laptops and tablets because the print edition was never really under threat. However, as computers and tablets became cheaper, bandwidth improved and people got used to migrating from print to a computer screen the future of the newspaper industry became ever more uncertain.

After all, why would anybody buy a newspaper when they could get precisely the same content for free, at any time of day on a portable device? For some extraordinary reason this never seemed to occur to newspaper management who genuinely couldn't understand why newspaper sales were falling.

So now it's crunch time and most newspaper owners have no alternative but to charge for their web offerings. The Sunday Times have already erected a pay wall but it's probably too early to know if it's going to be profitable. Since the paper's policy these past few years has been to dumb down the content in order to reach a wider readership one wonders why those with access to the internet (traditionally the financially better off readers) would want to pay for content that is not intended for them.

Pretty well everything that appears on SA newspaper websites has been unimaginatively taken straight off that publication's printed page. Whether that is tempting enough to get punters to part with their money for access is debatable. The problem with the internet is that there is too much choice. So if one site puts up a paywall many users will just move onto another site that offers free content; and there are plenty of reputable ones to choose from.

Which is why I think it's very brave of Business Day editor Peter Bruce to launch BDlive. Unlike others, Bruce and his team seem to understand that the BD website has to be a totally different entity from the newspaper and are treating it as such. Hallelujah....somebody finally understands. In the days when financial statements were sent to a business newspaper with an embargo there was a place for a publication like Business Day. In a world where information is transmitted in nanoseconds anything that makes tomorrow's front page is history. So for Bruce to place the emphasis on the digital publication makes great sense. The question is, will it fly?

I plan to subscribe to the new BDlive for a trial period because I genuinely think it will be a good start to the day and I'm not hopelessly attached to the romance of newsprint. I hope Bruce has the courage to run the occasional non politically correct piece and I trust that he will show rather more respect for freedom of speech than some of his fellow editors. However, I doubt whether my lone subscription is going to bolster the bottom line too much. What BDlive really needs is advertising and there's the rub.

Next January captive advertising from the JSE (said to be worth about R200mln to the business media) disappears and BDlive needs something to replace it if it is to survive. Few newspapers have ever profited on sales alone. It is the advertising that pays for all those swanky management cars. Exactly the same applies to a website I suspect.

The thing with a website though is that the reader's eyes behave in a completely different way to when they scan a newspaper. It's much easier to flip through a newspaper than it is to move through a website which means that the home page is the one most favoured for an advertisement. That's rather limiting compared with the layout of a newspaper.

One might have expected the advertising industry (famed for its creativity) to have come up with brilliant ideas over the past decade but they haven't. I suspect that closing the Nelson Mandela bridge to shoot a mini epic is much more fun and far more profitable than coming up with a banner ad for a website. Let's face it, most 11 year old could probably do that anyway.

So unless the creatives in the ad industry come up with new suggestions to attract revenue to a webpage I would suggest corporate sponsorship may be the way to go.  As the only columnist in South Africa to have had not one but two online columns sponsored by corporates (both post the ST "sacking" interestingly) I can vouch for the fact that the system works for both the columnist and the publisher. It also insures that the quality of the content remains high because no sponsor will want to associate the company name with garbage.

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