The rupture in the global media landscape claimed another high-profile scalp in Gigaom this month. But tomorrow a national news agency will close its doors. Who will mourn its passing asks Scott Guthrie?
As the global media landscape continues to rupture acres of digital column inches are given over to the latest masthead victims as the media asks itself how it can make money in the twenty-first century. The demise of news site, Gigaom, earlier this month is just one more high-profile example. But, tomorrow journalists at South Africa’s national news agency will file copy for the last time before shutting up shop forever.
South Africa’s only independent national wire service, the South African Press Association (Sapa), will close its doors at midnight tomorrow (31st March, 2015, local time) ending 76 years as primary wire-copy supplier to media companies.
Established on July 1, 1938, by major South African newspapers Sapa existed to provide the South African media, private and public sector with cost-effective, unbiased, reliable, comprehensive news and information.
National news agencies as news wholesalers
National news agencies are news ‘wholesalers’. Owned by member news outlets who club together to share the editorial overhead, pooling resources and facilitating news sharing. These news agencies provide the nuts and bolts of news.
A country’s newspapers, its broadcasters and news websites (the news retailers) rely on news agency content for the base of the news every day and hire specialist journalists and editors to add colour to their content with analysis and further research so differentiating it from competitors.
News agencies such as SAPA, the Press Association (PA) in the UK, the Associated Press (AP) in the US and the Australian Associated Press (AAP) in Australia are separate from the government. They provide fast, impartial and accurate news. Sapa is a good case in point. During the apartheid era, the agency was criticised by the ruling National Party for inadequate reporting of the government’s viewpoint and Afrikaner culture.
In today’s 24/7 news cycle media there’s evermore reliance on news agency copy by mastheads. A 2012 report into Australian media found “‘Breaking News’ sections [of current online news websites] are usually comprised of 80-100% AAP copy.”
Unfortunately for national news agencies increased use of their content does not usually translate into increased profits. The fragmenting media landscape means mastheads use the agency copy more but dwindling advertising revenues mean less cash to pay for it.
What can national news agencies do to avoid repeating the fate of SAPA and that of the New Zealand Press Association three-and-a-half years ago?
Here are four quick possibilities:
Automate content generation
Last year AP in the US began using automation technology from a company called Automated Insights to write company earnings reports. AP managing editor Lou Ferrara said the technology could automatically generate almost 4,500 reports each quarter, up from the 300 the company produced manually.
The technology has uses beyond financial set pieces. The Los Angeles Times for example is using the software to generate content for sports coverage and other statistic-reliant stories like earthquakes.
In December 2013 the Press Association sold its weather forecasting business, MeteoGroup, for £160 million – making £125 million in the process. The year before in November 2012 PA sold its 50% share in Canada Newswire for £30.1m. These profits become welcome windfalls for PA’s owners and allows the agency to reinvest in its core business whilst looking for new diversification opportunities.
Do even more with less
“The traditional operations of the newswire tailored to provide the running, straight-up-and-down news reports of the big stories of the day has to evolve to meet the demands of round-the-clock media consumption by people on all different kinds of devices,” Campbell Reid, group editorial director of News Corp Australia has said. This means news agencies need journalists who can write copy for print, web and mobile, and also take photographs and shoot film.
Build new audiences
News agencies can look beyond their owners to find new audiences willing to pay for this fast, accurate and impartial news. Tony Gillies, AAP editor-in-chief, says that 55% of its newswire revenue now comes from non-members.