Benita Chacko

The industry is at least 2-3 years away from language audiences paying for content: News18 Digital's Mitul Sangani

The platform has offerings in 12 regional languages. Last year, it launched News18 Local in eight languages.

With the increase in Internet penetration, the consumption of news in regional languages, has also seen a rise. Looking at this growing demand, major digital news networks are launching platforms in regional languages. While news websites in Hindi, Bengali, Tamil and Telugu have become common, it is rare to see national news portals launching in niche languages like Assamese, Odia and Urdu. 

News18 Digital offers news content in 12 regional languages. Last year, it launched a new vertical, News18 Local, in eight languages. The platform brings hyperlocal coverage from 200-plus districts and also has a plethora of video content.

However, the platforms' revenue is largely driven by advertising. While many English digital news platforms have gone behind the paywall in recent years, Mitul Sangani, chief operating officer and business head, News18 Digital, says it is still going to be a few more years before the language audiences start paying for news content.

In an interview with afaqs!, Sangani talks about the challenges of hyperlocal content, the platform's niche language offerings, video content, and the overall digital regional news ecosystem.

Edited excerpts:

How was 2022 for News18 Digital? What were some of the high points of the year?

2022 was quite interesting for not only News18, but also the overall news ecosystem. News consumption saw a spike, post-COVID. It went well into 2021. We saw a lot of normalisation, in terms of users, in 2022.  

The content consumption habit, with regard to languages, is growing. The vernacular or the non-English user, is consuming more content. The essence of content has changed.

It was a great year for the language ecosystem. We were leaders in Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Gujarati and Bengali in most months. We were in the top three in all languages, except Hindi and Marathi.

One of the highlights of 2022 was that we launched News18 Local in eight languages. It focuses on local coverage from Tier-II and III towns. We are currently live in 200-plus districts. 

Some languages like Assamese, Odia and Urdu, are quite niche. What are the challenges in monetising content in these languages?

The idea is to make sure that we reach out to every possible language and, maybe, get into dialects then. But the fact is that these are languages where the overall ecosystem is not yet mature enough. So, obviously, the average CPMs or RPMs derived, are low.

Right now, it's more of an audience game than a monetisation game. We are launching Local18 coverage in Assamese and Odia soon. Our idea is to garner more users by giving them customised content and, maybe, in a year or two, monetisation will start playing out.

What will change in the next year or two?

With these languages, the consumption is low. So once it reaches a threshold level, where there is enough audience for the advertisers to target them, then the entire ecosystem will start moving towards that. It is for the ecosystem to scale the adoption. It happened with Hindi and the four South Indian languages. It will also happen in other smaller languages.

Is this audience willing to pay for content? Are there plans to introduce paywalls?

Not really. We haven't seen any successful model in India for languages. The industry is at least 2-3 years away from language audiences paying for content.

Reports suggest that the metro cities are saturated, and the next phase of growth is expected from beyond them. How will your content strategy change to cater to that audience? 

We believe that the consumption will grow from Tier-II, III markets and smaller districts, provided we also work on localised content. The formats will play a much bigger role there.  

Is talent a challenge, when you are hyperlocalising content? Is it difficult to get the right resources? 

Definitely, but it is not stopping us from our objective to reach out to those markets with relevant content. It's not about getting talent from the existing ecosystem, it's about creating. There are challenges, but it's something that can be overcome by working with them.

There are over a million video consumers in India. What percentage is consuming news in video format? What are News18’s plans, in terms of video offerings, this year?

We work with all distribution networks for our video content. On YouTube and Facebook, we are the leaders in almost all the major languages, including Hindi and English. 

But having said that, the consumption right now is happening more on third-party platforms. We've seen a huge spike in consumption on our own platforms as well. But currently, the majority of consumption on our platforms, is text-based. It's a matter of time before we also start seeing more video consumption. We are creating a lot of original content, outside of our TV network. Our focus is to create a lot of original video content. 

News18 Local is a video initiative. We are creating video content from each of the 200 districts.

What are your expectations from 2023? What is the one thing that you would like to achieve this year?

We want to take News18 Local even deeper into the country. We want to reach audiences who are now coming on to digital platforms. 

What are some key challenges that the digital news ecosystem is currently facing?

It's a very dynamic ecosystem and, while we all operate in the realm of news in the digital ecosystem, it's quite widespread. We have to be on our feet, in terms of the current trends.

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