Aishwarya Ramesh

News publishers on consumption and monetisation in a post COVID world

The Coronavirus has changed the way we consume news and the way news itself is published. How are the news publishers keeping up?

Whether we, as Indians, like to admit it or not, our mornings are incomplete without a cup of tea/coffee and a newspaper of our choice. However, in the times we live in right now, the Coronavirus has changed the way we consume news and the way news itself is published.

The lockdown, has put stress on publisher infrastructure. The pandemic, other than operational issues, has forced publishers to question many of their approaches, including whether apps are a good investment or not. Most news apps do allow personalisation and greater stickiness but, on the other hand, they lose out when it comes to social media traffic.

As India attempts to 'unlock', what is the way forward for news consumption? How have the expectations from news media brands changed? What can custodians of news brands do under these circumstances?

A panel, moderated by Sreekant Khandekar, founder and director, afaqs!, attempted to decrypt this process. The panel saw participation from Mitesh Jain, country sales manager - media and carrier division - Akamai Technologies; Mithun Kidambi, head - product and revenue at The Wire; Nigel Eccleston, head - digital, ThePrint; Sanjay Sidhwani, chief executive officer, The Indian Express; Sujit Routray, vice president - digital operations, Asianet News Network; and Vijay Jung Thapa - chief digital officer, ABP News.

News publishers on consumption and monetisation in a post COVID world

Mitesh of Akamai began the session by explaining that in light of the current pandemic, journalistic organisations had to shift from thinking of a newsroom as a physical space because that space has been disrupted. This shift has to be incorporated as a long term strategy.

Mithun Kidambi, the product head at The Wire says that the appetite for serious news and in-depth has gone up in the current circumstances, adding that news that used to crowd homepages such as entertainment, sports, etc is on the low right now.

Nigel agreed with Kidambi, saying he’d seen a lot of the same patterns at Asianet. “A lot of people aren’t receiving their newspapers in the morning so digital is their go-to source for news and information,” he says.

Sidhwani of Indian Express adds that the user profile has changed slightly – with increased interest in the 45-50 age group, mentioning that this age group was responsible for 200 per cent growth for the online newspaper.

“In our case, the jump from print to digital would be more profound because we actively went out and distributed our e-papers through partnerships with our banks and expanded our footprint into non-traditional print markets,” says Sidhwani.

Sujit Routray points out that the increased interest in different sections of news sites in these circumstances doesn’t always translate to an increase in monetisation and/more ads.

Commenting on the e-paper phenomenon, Sidhwani mentions that e-papers will continue to play an important role in the news consumption cycle for a decade or so.

“A large chunk of users are accustomed to that old world newspaper experience because it’s a habit. An e-paper may not be the best way to consume news, but for someone who is used to consuming a newspaper, they may like the feel of turning the pages, the familiarity of finding certain types of content on certain pages might be something they are drawn to,” he explains.

He adds that once you get them on to the epaper, you can accustom a reader to the finer nuances of the digital news experience.

When it comes to free vs. paid e-papers, Sidhwani says that those who are putting out the e-paper to read for free are essentially inviting people to sample a product. “In the real world, it’s hard to convert a person’s loyalty from one brand to another but in the digital world, its essentially one click away,” he adds.

“As more advertisers are feeling the heat of the recession, publishers are also looking at different payment models where they can charge for content and they’re also looking for ways to tighten the paywall,” says Jain of Akamai Technologies.

He adds that as the willingness to pay for news increases, a paywall becomes increasingly important from a publisher’s perspective. In this context, when there is a lot of free content on the internet, it becomes increasingly important for publishers to deliver compelling content worth paying for.

Khandekar points out that Asianet is strong among NRI Indians, as is ABP News – so what is the possibility of NRIs paying to consume news?

Routray agrees that there has been significant growth from NRIs, year-on-year and says that it has attempted to use a subscription model targeted specifically at these news consumers. “We always have to ask ourselves if the content we’re putting behind a paywall can be duplicated elsewhere, by someone who delivers news for free. If content from Netflix can be shown on illegal platforms, what’s the guarantee that it cannot happen with news content that we’ve put behind a paywall?” he asks, adding that the model was not entirely successful.

Thapa admitted that they hadn’t tried it yet, but claims before building a subscription model, its necessary to build and create content which is in tune of standards of subscription. “The stuff we’re doing right now is good for a free model, but its not good enough for a subscription model,” admitted Thapa.

KIDAMBI says that when The Wire started, it started as a print medium but video was an integral part of our reportage. “We started looking at video as a specific platform where we could craft shows that interest that specific audience. It’s not about converting a text story into a video monologue, its about creating specific video content for the platform,” he says.

Eccleston says that as of now, ThePrint is content with being on YouTube. He reveals that the publication will make the move to towards monetisation eventually, when it made sense (in terms of profitability) to monetise the content.

Kidambi agrees that The Wire is in the same place and at this point, it had around 3 million subscribers but they don’t think its big enough to be monetised, until they figure out a way to monetise it beyond the ad-share model currently used.

While talking about apps, Eccleston elucidates that apps have more captive audience than web browsers but an app requires a good level of coding and development for a good end product.

Discussing the user base an app could have, Sidhwani mentions that the user base on apps is less than 10 per cent of the core audience (that visits their website), but that they are more loyal when it comes to repeatedly visiting the app for information.

Watch the full discussion here.

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