"It is, perhaps, an accident of history that the Covid-19 audience surge occurred as publishers are shifting to a subscription-based business model," said Earl Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of the International News Media Association (INMA).
"I think loyalty and trust have become dual currencies for publishers. When the chips were down, readers turned to the publishers they know and trust. They flirted on Facebook when things didn't matter, but turned to you when things did matter."
But that only got them in the door. The trick is to get them to stay.
"In all of INMA's research on loyalty, retention, churn and habit, we estimate that highly differentiating content - which publishers are only now beginning to recognise they didn't have - is only 50% of the value proposition to readers," said Wilkinson. "The other 50% involves community, convenience and cause. That is the loyalty loop. Content only forms a semi-circle."
The flipside of the coin is that right now, the pandemic has hit most South Africans hard, and many would be cautious to commit money to something like a news subscription, despite needing credible information more than ever. It raises ethical questions about whether public service journalism, which is essential for healthy, democratic societies, should not be free for everyone to access.
NEW ERA | News24 launches digital subscriptions at R75/month. Breaking news remains free
For this reason, some publishers are seeking alternative models to the subscriber model, including philanthropic endowments and public trusts, to keep providing information that enable citizens to make informed choices about the way they live their lives and who they choose to govern.
"The simple truth is that it costs money to produce journalism and a lot more to produce investigative and quality journalism," said Cherilyn Ireton, executive director of the World Editors Forum. "So there has to be a way to pay for the journalism if news organisations are to meet their mandate.
"Subscriptions are an obvious route. Netflix and M-Net do it, and not many baulk at paying, because they value the content. Subscriptions seem to work best for niche content and news, comment and analysis that are not readily available elsewhere. That's why Netwerk24 and BusinessLive have been successful. News24 was a digital pioneer - focusing on growing a big audience and attracting digital advertising. Now it has to find a way to monetise its content."
One thing is clear, the news brands, both big and small, who went the subscription route years ago, withstood the shock of Covid-19 far better than anyone else and were now better placed for the next few years.
"Advertising will come back, even if not at the level publishers have enjoyed. So, over the next few years, there will be a need to reinvent the revenue side of the publishing business and address the trust problem that exists in many markets," Ireton said.
"News sites, regardless of size, succeed through good, credible journalism and relationship with their readers, and this will become increasingly important."