Aishwarya Ramesh

The rise of e-papers in times of COVID

Many newspapers saw an increase in the consumption of their e-papers when the lockdown started. How has this period been for publishers?

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people consume news. In the first few months of the COVID-induced lockdown, many Indians had stopped subscribing to newspapers over fears of the virus spreading through them, and chose to read e-papers, instead.

While some newspapers continued to put their e-papers behind a paywall, other publications relaxed the paywall during lockdown months. A panel discussion on Day 4 of Digipub Week moderated by Business Standard's contributing editor Vanita Kohli-Khandekar studied the changes the e-paper and news publishing industry has gone through in the past few years, especially in the wake of lockdown in India.

The presenting partner of the discussion was AdPushup, the cloud security partner was Akamai Technologies, the technology partner was Quintype, and the associate partner was Chartbeat.

Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO – Digital, The Indian Express, began Day 4 of the Digipub Week by stating that the e-paper strategy was penned much before the pandemic struck. The Indian Express, in fact, introduced the e-paper in December 2015, and it was in place until March this year.

“In March, the lockdown happened and the distribution of the print newspaper got disrupted. This was a time when there was a lot of panic. People wanted to know what was happening and hear it from a brand they could trust. That’s why we took down our paywall for those few months,” said Sindhwani.

It was a good way to get sampling for our product, he said, adding that at this time, they had tied up with ICICI Bank, HDFC Bank, and so on, to reach out to a larger audience across the country.

“We saw increased consumption, not just because of the lockdown, but because of the active push campaign we had run with our partners – to reach newspaper readers who are not typically Indian Express readers. When we brought back the paywall after two months, we saw that we had increased subscriptions. We actually achieved our target for two years, even though we still have six months left to go…,” said Sindhwani.

Rachna Kanwar, COO, Digital Media Radio City and Mid-Day said that what happened in March was an unprecedented event that disrupted a century-old distribution mechanism. The challenge was to create a version of the newspaper which was easy to read. So, her company had to move to a PDF version of the newspaper overnight, since it offered minimal visual disruption.

Kanwar detailed how Mid-Day attempted to reach out to its readers. She explained that Mid-Day tied up with 854 clients from its sales team. This gave Mid-Day access to a database of nearly 10 crore users. Mid-Day also brought together an official WhatsApp channel through which it distributed the PDF version of the paper.

It has been two months since Mid-Day went behind a paywall – it happened in July. Kanwar said that Mid-Day wanted to create a disruption in the market with a multimedia version of the paper, which caught the readers’ attention.

Pradeep Gairola, VP and business head – digital media, The Hindu Group, revealed that The Hindu began putting its content behind a paywall 4-5 years ago. It (the paywall) was not relaxed during lockdown.

He said that the biggest change that the publisher saw during the pandemic was with their audience. Previously, 18-35 year olds consisted of 80 per cent of e-paper readers. That number fell to 65 per cent. However, the group of e-paper readers between 35 and 44 years went up by 300 per cent.

Gairola said that despite being a south-based paper, Tamil Nadu (the state where it is headquartered) comes in fourth place when it comes to e-paper readership. The Hindu’s biggest e-paper market is UP, followed by Telangana and Maharashtra. He also mentioned that most subscribers subscribe to the paper to prepare for their IAS exams.

Himanshu Gautam, business head – digital, Amar Ujala Group, mentioned that the pandemic helped provide them with an opportunity to consolidate their monetisation efforts on the paper.

Amar Ujala was the first Hindi newspaper to go beyond a paywall in July 2019. Gautam said that the company had been actively working on the product for the last five years - analysing the user’s preferences – including aspects like what devices they preferred reading the e-paper on, to facilitate this move.

“It was not an easy decision for us to go behind the paywall. A couple of years back, we had nearly 50 million page views on the e-paper alone, and the time spent on each page was an average of nine minutes. As far as an e-paper reader goes, you have his full and undivided attention and he’s a person who most probably reads a paper in the morning,” said Gautam.

During the pandemic, he admits, physical newspaper distribution did get affected, but since the majority of the audiences were from Tier-II and Tier III cities, it was not affected too badly. He added that the company saw a 290 per cent spike in subscription revenue during this time.

“The only place where I’d say distribution of our e-papers got affected was in railway stations and bus stands. The pandemic helped us consolidate our monetisation efforts, especially at a time when there was a lot of clutter on television and users were getting tired of it,” explained Gautam.

Siddharth Deshpande, director - security technology and strategy, Akamai Technologies, said that it is important for a publisher to keep security checks in place as a user is trusting the publisher with his/her payment information while signing up for content that is behind a paywall.

“There is responsibility on the publishers’ sides themselves. The members of their tech teams should make sure that there are controls to protect the web application, and to protect the website against security concerns like content scrapers (who download data from a website maliciously),” he said.

On the tech end, Sindhwani added that it is important that users have access to the same experience as reading a physical paper. Some people find the e-paper format inconvenient to read, with horizontal scrolling and other such features.

Both Gautam and Gairola agreed that the economics of an e-paper can’t match up to the ad revenue that a physical newspaper can bring. Gairola added that the pandemic has brought two years of advancement to the publishing world and its audience. Both may have, otherwise, adopted e-papers at a slower pace.

Watch the full discussion below.

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