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Why are print dailies so conservative with their online editions?

By Kapil Ohri , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Digital | March 12, 2009
Although the online editions of leading newspapers have existed for more than a decade, media companies have still not figured out how to monetise them

Indian print dailies entered the online space more than a decade ago. The Hindu was one of the first newspapers to launch its website, Hinduonnet.com, in 1995. The other leading English dailies such as The Times of India and Hindustan Times launched their websites, Timesofindia.com and Hindustantimes.com, way back in 1997. Today, most of the leading print dailies, be it English, Hindi or regional, have an online presence.

However, even after a decade of existence, many of these large print dailies aren't very aggressive with their online ventures.

& #BANNER1 & #K Srinivas, senior manager, Internet operations, Eenadu, agrees and says, "Online editions are considered merely as an extension of the newspaper and are not treated as a separate source of revenue." The Telugu daily also has an online presence, Eenadu.net.

While the online editions of some of the age-old and renowned English dailies still do not have any significant interactive features, a few of them have been more innovative in their approach. However, industry observers are of the opinion that print dailies have not used the interactive power of the web to optimally engage the readers.

In the name of interactivity, most of the newspaper websites only allow consumers to comment on the news stories, participate in opinion polls, share news stories through social media sites or play games. However, there hasn't been any major effort where the reader becomes a part of the content.

A noted social media consultant and columnist on digital media, Kiruba Shankar, says, "No newspaper website has seriously endorsed citizen journalism, which could have offered immense possibilities to generate exclusive and instant web-content."

He adds, "Less than 1 per cent of the total news content generated on the newspaper websites is powered by citizen journalists."

Blogs, an important source of user generated content (UGC) in the Web 2.0 era, are still written by their own journalists or guest columnists and are still not open to users in many of the leading websites. Some of the leading newspapers which do allow users to create blog accounts and write blog posts on their websites include TimesofIndia.com and IndianExpress.com.

There were also a few tips on how the news websites could improve the content.

Sachin Vashishta, head, Internet properties, ABP Digital, says, "Newspapers should improve the presentation of the content in their online editions. Interesting visuals can be uploaded with the stories."

Another media observer suggested that news websites should include audio and video content on the website. This will make the stories more engaging and interesting.

However, this seems to be very farfetched, especially when many media companies do not even bother to have a special content and ad sales team for the websites.

A senior executive of an online firm says, "It's like a chicken and egg situation. Media companies do not intend to have a separate sales and content team for the online edition, apprehending that the expenses can't be recovered. Similarly, without a dedicated team, they can't look at earning sizeable revenue from the online venture."

"It's also because many print media owners have already burnt their fingers during the dotcom boom, which is why they are extra cautious while implementing any online plan," says another media observer.

One reason, which industry observers attribute to this lack of interest, is inadequate revenue in the online business models vis--vis print.

Shankar adds, "India is one market where the print dailies are still growing. For these traditional print media companies, print dailies continue to be the main bread earner, while the online editions' contribution remains scanty."

As per industry estimates, the online edition's contribution in a company's overall revenue is in the range of 1-2 per cent, which is almost negligible. For example, a full page ad in any leading English daily - all editions - generates 10 times the total revenue generated by all ads on its online edition for a given day.

Forget about competing with print dailies, news websites are at the bottom even in an online media plan.

The first priority for advertisers is always the horizontal portals, which take away almost 60 per cent of the online display advertising, estimated to be worth Rs 400 crore. The other 40 per cent goes to verticals, which can be further divided between business verticals and online editions of print dailies and television news channels.

Pradeep Singh, business head, Zeenews.com, corroborates the fact. "Advertisers still perceive that brand building campaigns work better on traditional media and a lot of them still use the Internet medium to run lead-generation campaigns only. Now, even if one advertiser opts for an Internet media plan, the priority is always horizontal portals," he says.

"The reason behind this trend is that horizontal portals provide a much wider reach and also numbers," explains Kushal Sanghvi, managing director, Media Contacts, the digital arm of Havas Media.

As a result, many English dailies have tried out a short route to having an online presence. They have subscribed to ad networks and the Google AdSense programme. Unfortunately, these barely cover the cost of putting up the print content online and are limited only to the English dailies.

"This has led to a situation where the world of rich media options, innovations and other ways to monetise online traffic was simply missed or not accounted for by these owners," says an observer.

Some the television news channels have tried different rich media options and have been constantly innovating on their websites. Probably, this could be a learning for newspapers.