Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Interviews

“Paywall assures authenticity. Free WhatsApp forwards not as valued by consumers”: Sivakumar Sundaram, BCCL, on e-paper paywall

The Times of India just introduced a paywall for its e-paper. We analyse the move and interview the chairman of the executive committee of BCCL about it.

Earlier this month, leading English daily The Times of India (TOI) decided to put its e-paper behind a paywall. The e-paper is also the latest addition to the Times Group’s subscription-based news products, which already include ET Prime and TOI+ (ad-free TOI with special stories). The TOI e-paper is now available at a monthly subscription fee of Rs 199.

Most digital news publishers in India aspire to put their products behind a paywall, similar to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg and Financial Times in the West.

The ‘paid e-paper’ club in India already includes The Hindu and The Indian Express, beside TOI. The Hindustan Times is yet to make a move. The Hindu’s e-paper is priced at Rs 799 for six months, and Rs 1,299 for a year. The current annual subscription fee for The Indian Express’ e-paper is Rs 999.

The recent lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the circulation of newspapers. There were rumours that newspapers could also act a vector for the disease. The impact was such that the top brass of print media houses, along with government bodies, had to come up with clarifications.

So, the focus shifted to e-papers, with PDF versions of newspapers being widely circulated over WhatsApp and email. Both The Indian Express and The Hindu briefly made their e-papers free for the lockdown period.

Speaking about the PDF circulation and the overall shift, Sandeep Amar, founder, Publishers Digital Lab (a technology company helping publishers globally), says, “It seems that the strategy, not just for TOI but others as well, was to showcase their distribution to advertisers, saying, ‘If not through print, we are available digitally via PDFs’. Most players were aggressive about their PDF circulation.”

Amar (who is also the former CEO of Indian Express Digital) says that the strategy of distributing PDFs (by almost all the players) probably did not work well with advertisers. “The circulation of e-papers via mediums like email, WhatsApp, etc., can’t be substantiated for advertisers because it’s not there on the server and the readership can’t be tracked.”

He also mentions that there is a probability of fear among publishers that if consumers get hooked on to the e-paper, they may not go back to the (physical) paper. He, however, is of the opinion that e-papers are not popular, in general, and also not an easy way of reading news. “It has value in scenarios like preparing for exams due to the large, easily accessible archives. E-paper is very small in the whole digital scheme of things. Say, in Comscore, if a site has 50 million users, e-papers would be at less than a million users. It is more of a perception move,” Amar adds.

We interviewed Sivakumar Sundaram, chairman of the executive committee of BCCL (TOI’s owner company), on the news brand’s latest move.

Sundaram says that the lockdown has brought various constraints, and one of them was the difficulty in distribution in some markets. This caused TOI’s readers to turn to the closest alternative to their newspaper also causing a surge in new users. Sundaram suggests that a freely available e-paper meant easy fodder for fake and doctored versions. He pegs the paywall as a potent remedy for the problem. “We believe that not only our patrons, but people who were not Times of India readers are also subscribing to our e-papers. The intention was to separate the men (newspapers) from the boys (fake forwards), and that impact has been accomplished by the introduction of the paywall,” he adds.

Edited excerpts:

The Times of India is a mass media brand, and swears by its wide reach and circulation muscle. Won’t putting your e-paper behind a paywall have a negative impact when the circulation of newspapers is already strained?

On the contrary, people will appreciate that we are ensuring they get credible and untampered news in these crucial times. In the current environment of caution, fear and fake news, The Times of India (newspaper) is sought after more than ever for its credible and curated reporting. With the lockdown preventing smooth delivery of the (physical) newspaper to all our readers, we feel it is our duty to make authentic, curated, vetted news accessible to them. The freely available e-paper implied that mischief makers could download, alter and redistribute fake news at will.

By putting our paper behind a paywall, we are ensuring that people, who want to read the original version of the news, can do so with full assurance of its authenticity. We discourage the consumption of downloaded and forwarded versions, which, by the way, can be tampered with, of the newspaper as that can be misleading and dangerous for our society in these fragile times.

"The e-paper is just a second best alternative to the physical newspaper."
Sivakumar Sundaram

What are the negative impacts of free circulation of e-papers? Did it have any immediate impact on offline subscription?

The e-paper is just a second best alternative to the physical newspaper. Our readers still yearn for the life size grandeur of reading the newspaper with their morning cup of tea (and these days, during their multiple cups of tea). In today’s times, the impact of free and unchecked circulation of e-papers can be catastrophic. The biggest fear was that the freely available e-paper could be tampered with and redistributed to the unsuspecting reader. Second, it’s a fact that whatever is free and forwarded on WhatsApp is not valued by the consumers. We are still in a lockdown, with distribution constraints in some markets. But, I am confident that our offline subscription will be back to pre-lockdown levels.

How much of the revenue that you might be losing due to COVID-19 lockdown do you plan to recover from the paywall?

The loss of revenue has happened across industries, and for reasons beyond anyone’s control. For us, the paywall for e-paper is not an initiative to drive revenue. We invest a lot of time, money and effort in content creation and curation. The move to put our offerings behind a paywall for a token monthly charge is to demonstrate this value, and give it the respect it deserves.

"We deliver value, and value needs to be monetised."
Sivakumar Sundaram

It is understandable that the circulation of print as well as advertising is affected at the moment, but things will change. Do you plan to continue with the paywall, post lockdown?

We deliver value, and value needs to be monetised. Therefore, it was always our intention to introduce a paywall. The move has been precipitated by the lockdown, but it was an inevitability in the long run. We believe that the print version of the newspaper is still the best experience. It’s a well-researched and a well-established fact that readers love to touch and feel their newspaper. Our studies tell us that over 90 per cent of newspaper readers prefer the print version. I believe that both the physical and the digital will seamlessly co-exist.

"The industry is certainly together on introducing a paywall, given that the risks of not doing so are way higher..."
Sivakumar Sundaram

Print might have its intrinsic value, but digital, in a way, is a level playing field. With little chance of TV-first news brands going for a paywall for digital news, it could have a negative impact. Your closest rival is still free. Your views?

Different media have their own audience aggregation strategies and revenue models. We have always maintained that mediums will co-exist as long as they are able to provide value to their customers. There is no print versus digital debate because the consumer seeks different value propositions from each. The industry is certainly together on introducing a paywall, given that the risks of not doing so are way higher, and I’m sure every print publication would be announcing their plans soon. Most of them have already done so.

How is a paid e-paper different from subscriptions for news websites?

The e-paper is an exact replica of the physical newspaper. A news website is not the right comparison to an e-paper.

TOI is the market leader, but the brand has been among the later entrants in the e-paper subscription space. What was holding you back, and why is now the right time?

Crisis brings about some behavioural changes. The on-ground distribution challenges, and the mindless forwards of e-paper accelerated the decision. Let me clarify that we’re not entering the subscription space, but merely creating an ambience for our offerings to ensure credible, untampered news available to readers, who are, otherwise, flooded with plethora of PDFs, including fake news daily.