TITLE: “NewsBreak breaks new ground in Telecommunications”
My new brief to increase the number of outlets for SABC News nationally and internationally is premised on two aims: improve the accessibility of the South African public,(and the international public) to SABC News; and, where possible, provide new sources of income for the SABC to assist the corporation in achieving its public broadcast mandate.
NewsBreak - a joint venture with the Vodacom cellphone network- is one of these projects, by which anyone with access to a telephone can dial in any time and get the latest available news for the cost of the phone call. The project marries the latest digital technology in the audio news world with the latest technological advances in telephony, and enables the news consumer to individualise their news service in terms of content, and time of access.
This paper describes how the project evolved, from the first steps into uncharted territory to the present successful format and the expansion plans for the future. It includes a description of the way in which the newsflow had to be tailored and adapted and how the skills of the small team of compiler/presenters were harnessed to produce a successful product. The project relies heavily on a strategic marketing plan for sustaining its success. The service has evoked interest in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, where no such project yet exists, but shares some similarities with a cellphone news service in India, where the Chief Executives of the SABC and Vodacom first came across it during a telecommunications visit to that country in 1999.
NewsBreak breaks new ground inTelecommunications
NewsBreak Project Leader: Editor: Special News Services: SABC:
Judy Sandison heads Special News Services in the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s News Division. She has been tasked by the Chief Executive with increasing SABC News outlets nationally and internationally. An award-winning broadcast journalist who has also been honoured with several overseas fellowships, she was formerly Regional Editor in KwaZulu-Natal, responsible for news and current affairs on Ukhozi fm and Lotus fm, as well as for news on East Coast Radio before it was sold by the SABC. She has a BA from University of Natal, a B.Proc from Unisa and a Masters degree from Southwest Texas State University. She is currently also Secretary-General of the South African National Editors Forum.
My brief to increase the number of outlets for SABC News nationally and internationally was premised on two aims: to improve the accessibility of the South African public, (and the international public) to SABC News; and, where possible, to provide new sources of income for the SABC, and so assist the corporation in achieving its public broadcast mandate.
NewsBreak - a joint venture with VODACOM- is one such project, and the first one to be launched under these auspices. Anyone with access to a telephone can dial in any time and get the latest available news for the cost of the phone call -using either a cellphone or a landline telephone.
Some of the key features of the new service:
- The vast bimedia news-gathering resources of the SABC are tapped as a news source for the service.
The project marries the latest digital technology in the audio news world with the latest technological advances in telephony, and enables the news consumer to individualise their news service in terms of content, as well as time and ease of access.
- The project had to be researched, planned, and promoted from the first steps into uncharted territory to the present successful format.
Future expansion plans include the introduction of regular business updates, and the possibility of providing the service in other languages such as Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans. There have already been requests from users for this.
The newsflow had to be tailored and adapted to suit the new format - which is neither a radio bulletin nor a voice message, but a distinctly new kind of news presentation.
- The skills of the small team of compiler/presenters had to be harnessed to produce a successful product in creating a viable new presentation style.
The project relies on a strategic marketing plan for sustaining its success.
- The service lends itself to a variety of applications through the menu options -this gives the user immediate access to a highly individualized product that can cover service messages or specific information as well as news.
It is also an avenue for two-way communication i.e. callers can give audio feedback on the service when the system is set up for this to happen. This has been done to gauge viewer reaction to the introduction of the new morning television show “Morning Live” on SABC 2; and comments on the Newsbreak service itself were also elicited.
The service has evoked interest in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, where no such project yet exists, but shares some similarities with a cellphone news service in India, where the Chief Executives of the SABC and VODACOM came across it during a telecommunications visit to that country.
Having been given the initial brief in June 1999 to get such a service up and running as soon as possible, I met with representatives from Vodacom and their (technical) service provider Marketel as well as key people within various sections of the SABC - representing Business Enterprises, technical, resources, finance, legal and marketing aspects - to set goals and targets.
I then drew up a business plan that divided the project into several phases, to allow for expansion and to enable the menu options to be tailored to meet the needs of the user, and also to take advantage of unfolding new technology. As this was new ground, such an approach also enabled me to continuously monitor and assess weaknesses and problem areas and fix them before proceeding to the next phase, as well as exploring ‘spare’ capacity available at SABC to keep costs down.
I had to find professional skilled staff who would have the ability to quickly adapt to such a brand new format, and whose lateral thinking abilities would help enhance the product quality as it evolved. Using the limited research available I drew up a product brief which I then ran through with the new team, who were then also trained on the digital equipment on how to edit and send the updates down to the cellphone platform. They had to be trained on the Dalet digital news system and the SABC’s newswriting computer programme Newstar and briefed on content and style guidelines.
Presentation needed to be in excellent English: crisp, snappy, focused, professional, authoritative, relevant, and consistent across the different voices. Clarity was essential because the voice had to be heard down a telephone line, so news presenters who might have been perfect for radio or television news presenting, were not necessarily suitable for the NewsBreak service. Training in the new presentation style was provided weekly to ensure a consistent standard across all shifts.
The first phase kicked off in June 1999 with a team of four journalists working shifts covering the time period 6am to 6pm; and a month later shifts were extended to provide 24 hour access.
The team compiled, presented and recorded hourly 3 minute audio news updates in English featuring a mix of international, national, business, sport and human interest stories, niche-targeted to the needs of the cellphone user.
The service went on free trial for a month so it could be fine-tuned before going ‘official’. Adverts were produced for SABC radio and television to promote it with the theme -“ SABC-Vodacom: --all the news you need --any time, any place, catch it on Newsbreak! 082 152!”.
The response was unprecedented and very positive, although the volume dropped once the calls were no longer free.
The service had the following special features:
Gave callers the latest news, updated hourly between five a.m. and 11 p.m. seven days a week.
The updates were accessible 24 hours, 7 days a week.
During special or dramatic news events, it was updated more often.
All callers had to do was dial 152 if they were on a Vodacom network, or 082 152 from an ordinary telephone or other cellphone network--- to hear the latest news.
It could be accessed from overseas, by adding the country code and dropping the zero. (although we subsequently discovered that in countries with no short digit codes, such as the United Kingdom, the longer version of the number -+27 82 234 2900- had to be used). However a country such as the United States could be accessed with great ease via +27 82 152.
Four contract staff and some freelancers worked shifts selecting and editing news copy and sound bites from the SABC’s Newstar (written copy) and Dalet (digital sound mainly) systems to compile and record a two and a half minute news bulletin.
It was recorded in the Dalet digital studio in the newsroom and fed down to the cellphone platform.
Each new feed automatically replaced the previous one.
Each update featured a mix of relevant business and socio-political stories, niche-targeted and tightly edited.
Preference was given to stories with impact and relevance - international, national, business and sport plus strong human interest -the most relevant to the South African business/socio-political audience -and reflecting the top story of the day in all updates
Stories were edited down to 50-60 words, with sound bites averaging 15-20 seconds.
The presentation style was crisp, clear, authoritative and professional -- almost racy.
Each update opened with a musical sting., which was also used in the radio and television advertisements promoting the new product.
Business news was reflected but only if stories made a difference and had an impact., although economic indicators were frequently given.
politics (especially where it impacts on business/labour)
latest sport (top events and issues only e.g. World Cup)
Some of the questions that compilers needed to consider to help in their story selection:::
What is the most interesting and relevant international story at the moment?
What is the most interesting and relevant South African/national story?
Is there a strong running story that we should reflect in every update?
Which of these stories have the clearest, crispest, sound bites?
What is the most useful, interesting business/labour/markets story?
Is there a topical story from another country in Africa?
Is there an international or national interest sports event/issue that we need to reflect-- either the story or the latest score?
Is there a funny, amazing, ironic, human interest tail-ender anywhere!?
Under my direction and monitoring as project leader and editor, the dedicated team of journalists sourced news content and sound bites from SABC News’ central system and updated the line, with Vodacom provided the network infrastructure and additional marketing support.
Ads were designed and produced to air during the four week test period and were flighted on the SABC’s 3 television channels and on all the English language radio stations; (they were later also recorded in Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans) and incorporated in some existing Vodacom promotions.
Feedback from users is used to continually fine-tune the product and ensure it meets the needs of the user.
From July we were in a position to state that SABC News was now just a phone call away.
SABC-VODACOM’s joint venture Newsbreak had broken new ground, taking the latest SABC News to the global market.
People were calling from cellphones and ordinary telephones from around the country and from across the world.
They wanted to hear the latest international and national news specially compiled to meet the needs of the South African user. If you had missed your favourite radio or tv news bulletin, and had no newspaper handy, all you had to do was call Newsbreak to not be out of touch with what was happening in south Africa and around the world.
The volume of calls was clearly very dependent on consistent marketing, and the strength and size of both the SABC and Vodacom was a boon in maintaining this. However as any corporate employee is aware, it can take huge amounts of energy to overcome organizational inertia in such large corporations, so it was a tribute to the small team of dedicated professionals from each of the 3 stakeholder organisations that the project became operational so fast, and continued to add innovations to its repertoire almost every month.
The plan for phase 2 was to introduce five menu choices i.e. a caller would dial 152 and be asked to select from the phone dial face :
for Breaking news
for International news
for National news
for Business/economics/labour news
for either Sport or Weather
This order was amended in line with the needs expressed buy callers to the service.
From October, Newsbreak offered callers the option to listen to the latest sports-news, and then a traffic-news option was added to cater for new information needs during the holiday season.
Another special service which was offered on Newsbreak was personalized matriculation results for school-leavers writing in every province. With the assistance of SABC Education and the national Education Department, and the expertise of the technical service provider, tests were run and the service operated without hitches for several weeks, enabling matrics to call for their general results and subject symbols, wherever they were holidaying or working in or outside the country, as long as they had access to a telephone, and could provide their examination and identity numbers.
The weather option on the menu introduced in December, provides travelers weather forecast and updates several times a day.
Depending on how fast the software for the new technology is developed, the possibility of providing headlines and news update in a variety of language is very likely later this year.
Access to a news infrastructure, audience research, staff selection and training, marketing and the application of new technology were all essential components of the success of the new service.
The project is constantly reviewed to see how the Newsbreak product can link up with other SABC products across different technologies such as websites, short message services, etc
In my view, the new project has successfully harnessed the four T’s essential for business success in the new Millennium: Training, Technology, 24 hour Trading and Time (speed) - aspects noted by a speaker at a recent marketing management seminar. They enhance but don’t replace the perennial four P’s of marketing theory: Product, Price, Promotion and Place.
Training - in that the team -despite existing core skills, had to be very specifically trained in a new way of processing news, as well as in presenting it.
Technology - the very latest digital technology was utilized as a base for the service, and as new trends and innovations evolve, these are capitalized on.
24 hour Trading - the service is available and accessible at any time from any place (with a telephone system) round-the-clock which is a great convenience for the user.
Time -probably the greatest asset of the new product, is because draws from the electronic newsgathering network, it is able to provide news and audio updates to a wide audience faster than any print-based medium.
To these I would add another critical component, which is another T for Teamwork. The high quality of the teams involved from SABC, Vodacom and Marketel, as well as strong support for the new project from Top management of these organizations, made quite a difference and should not under-estimated in any service or product where new ways of doing things are being tried. The mobility and ease of access help to make news and information, especially with options such as prepaid telephone cards, more accessible to a wider range of people.
News is a very expensive and labour and skills intensive operation, so new ways must constantly be sought via technology to make more use of existing resources, or to adapt and tailor the existing stream of information for particular uses, so as to provide a new source of revenue which can be fed back into the news budget to help sustain the cost of its infrastructure.
It is vital that the SABC remains self-funded as much as possible,-- not only to maintain independence, but also because there are strong demands on the government fiscus to meet the basic needs of the country’s citizens, so every effort should be made to enable the public broadcaster to meet its own budgetary needs.
The SABC’s Newsbreak service has taken the country by storm. The success of this venture has proved that South Africa is among a few global leaders in applying this kind of technology to a news environment. While competitive lines are expected to follow hot on the heels of NewsBreak, there is no doubt that this kind of service is but the harbinger of many other innovative applications that will be introduced into Southern Africa and the African continent, helping to provide its residents with a wide range of information and news, via accessible and reliable communication channels.
Newsbreak is a unique and convenient service and many people call the service from other countries to find out what’s happening in South Africa e.g. callers from the USA dial 0027 82 152. Or from the U.K. dial +27 82 234 2900 as the UK system does not cater for short numbers.
“Catch up with the latest news
..…any time….any place….”
Footnote: NewsBreak 082 152; +27 82 152 (United States); +27 82 234 2900 (United Kingdom and any country that does not have short-digit codes)
Any suggestions or enquiries about Newsbreak may be directed to