Bouncing Back: How niche digital magazines are breathing life back into the South African media industry

Few media sectors have been hit harder by Covid-19 than the one in South Africa – the pandemic causing a range of iconic publications to disappear from newsstands. Amid all the carnage, there’s been some good news online. With the launch of two digital magazines – music platform and seasonal jewellery title JZA, niche publishers in the Republic are playing a leading role in helping the industry get up off the canvas.

“In South Africa niche publications have been far quicker to adapt to what works online than traditional media,” says Andile Mathobela, founder of, a video magazine that taps into South Africa’s vibrant house music scene.

Andile Mathobela, Founder,

“Traditional media here have an old fashioned way of doing things, making sure they cater for every member of the family when doing internet content. In my opinion that’s not going to work – niche publications are the way to go. Rather have a lot of niche publications as opposed to having a big platform where you are trying to fit everything in.”

According to Jason Aarons, publishing director of independent publishers Isikhova Media who has launched JZA, South Africa’s first dedicated, online consumer-retail jewellery magazine, it should come as little surprise that niche publications are riding out the Covid storm.

“Niche markets and customer loyalty magazines have always been the ones in these situations that have managed to survive,” he says. “Our key factor is reading the market and our ability to change and that’s across many sectors whether it’s soccer, homeschooling or jewellery. We are very versatile in what we do.”

Jason Aarons, Publishing director, Isikhova Media

The beat goes on

To launch Mathobela sold his shares in Zkhiphani, a successful platform for urban youth culture in South Africa. What some might see as a risky move Mathobela saw as a no-brainer.

“It was an easy decision because there was such a gap in the market,” he says. “South Africa is one of the biggest exporters of dance music, with our own very popular genre, Amapiano. Yet, despite the fact that music is at the forefront of youth culture, there was no platform or publication solely dedicated to that, so it had to be done.

“My thinking was that, with digital content moving forward, you need a niche audience so you get real engagement and a cult following. If you want to monetise digital content, you need those passionate followers.”

The fact that Mathobela is also a professional DJ means he’s ideally placed to generate both revenue and content. To fund Mathobela has turned to events organising, collaborating with venues and running gigs featuring top DJs. He also uses the parties to mine content, uploading videos of sets and interviews onto the website and onto social media.

Mathobela has been able to monetise the videos by striking a deal with Beefeater Gin who has used the DJ sets to launch its latest product. “As the DJ plays you have pop-up ads, which are not intrusive,” he says. “Or we’ll put some gin in the video, and the DJ will have a sip or two. I’m always sharing creative ideas with brands on how they put out their campaign using the dance music industry.”

While other brands have shown an interest in, many advertisers remain risk averse when it comes to online content, says Mathobela – something he is working hard to change.

“Advertisers want to stick to what they know,” he says. “If you are a big print publication they are willing to give you money or if you are a radio station they give you a big budget. But if you’re a podcast, they only give you a small budget, even though it has more engagements than a radio station.

“If I was an advertiser I would put money in a platform where people are engaging with the content as opposed to putting money into a brand just because they have been around for 50 years.”

To really connect with his youthful audience Mathobela decided that all articles would be video-based, with text just there to briefly describe the footage.

“We live in a world where people binge on video content,” he says. “Text-based content people will read and they might share here and there, but you are more likely to send a video to a friend. When I do videos people are more keen to interact and I knew I needed to be on that path when we launched.”

The key word for the SA media going forward is going to be flexibility.

Jason Aarons, Publishing director, Isikhova Media

Sparkling debut

Even before Covid struck, Isikhova Media was keen to launch a digital retail Jewellery magazine to keep pace with new consumer behaviour. The pandemic simply spurred on JZA in terms of its marketability and reader reach.

“Consumers have changed how they interface with all businesses,” says Aarons.

“It’s a generational thing. People who weren’t using e-commerce driven sites or even had a basic website have been forced to do that because the whole landscape has changed for consumers who go online and buy goods.”

Distributed via the Issuu platform and on Facebook, the beautifully designed JZA – which Aarons describes as an “inspirational and aspirational magazine” – already has a lot of advertising support. “A lot of people in the ad industry say – get back to me after the third issue,” Aarons adds. “But right from the beginning we had some big brands come on board.”

The fact that JZA has a global reach has led to unforeseen savings. “By going digital you certainly save on print and distribution but also editorial costs,” says Aarons. “Since we have this global reach freelancers approach us who just want to get their name out there, even though we tell them we have financial constraints. A lot of people like past editors of trade magazines just want to keep up their profession so we have been blessed to have that network.”

A key part of JZA’s success has been alliance partnerships Isikhova has struck up with international magazines and agencies. The magazine has an agreement to exchange editorial content with Solitaire, Asia’s leading women’s jewellery magazine – an arrangement that has established a direct link between JZA and Solitaire’s sales, advertising and marketing teams. JZA also works closely with the London based CoNNect Agency, a digital showroom for emerging jewellery designers from all over the world.

“A key factor with both collaborations is that the JZA brand is being shared beyond its shores, which goes a long way to raising the profile and wealth of talent of our country’s jewellery collective,” says Aarons. “The key word for the SA media going forward is going to be flexibility. You need to be flexible in your collateral and your ownership and be willing to share that with someone. When you have the flexibility and willingness your brand awareness and voice just grows.”

There is still something magical about a physical magazine.

Andile Mathobela, Founder,

Internet issues

A challenge facing both JZA and is the fact that the vast majority of people in South Africa can’t afford or don’t have access to the internet, and those who do are plagued by network outages. While the launch of Supersonic AirFibre in the country in May will help address the situation, getting more people online is a slow process that could stunt the growth of digital publications.

“In South Africa having access to the internet is considered a luxury,” says Mathobela. “The money you need to buy a gig of data is food for a week for someone. Internet access is an issue the government is well aware off. It’s a political issue that is always debated. It’s a big challenge that affects engagement because people want to watch something online but can’t afford to.”

To reach those who don’t have digital access, Mathobela is planning to launch a quarterly print publication. “There is still something magical about a physical magazine,” he says. “Something people can hold, touch and smell. So I want to print something for people who like magazines and who don’t have access to the internet. It’ll be a collector’s item and not something that I want to rely on.”

Because of internet issues in South Africa, Isikhova is also looking at bringing out a print version of JZA. “We are researching the distribution method thoroughly and will look at all options including postal, and possibly even a distribution partnership,” says Aarons.

“It’s still going to be difficult to reach a lot of people who would be interested in this magazine and that is where local companies like Rand Refinery and initiatives like the Ekurhuleni Jewellery Project play a big role.

 “They have created mentorship programmes and opportunities for young, emerging jewellery designers to manufacture and sell into the retail market, creating jobs and income for people to have access to internet or go to an internet café.”

Despite the challenges facing the media industry in South Africa, Aarons and Mathobela are positive about the future. “The future will be to stay in print and online but I do see a huge online growth in much of what we’ll be doing, especially in the immediate future,” say Aarons.

Mathobela believes the industry is in for an exciting time of innovation. “We are seeing change happening with podcasts taking over,” he says. “And I think content creators will become more entrepreneurial and sell their own brands on their own platforms. You will see content creators doing some amazing things in South Africa over the next few years.”


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