News media companies throughout India may be at different points on their digital transformations. They also approach that evolution from entirely very backgrounds. Yet, as four news media companies proved this week when speaking to INMA members, it often turns out that they agree on quite a bit.
Vanita Kohli Khandekar, columnist and writer for Business Standard, sought to find out where four news media organisations are in their digital transformations during day one of the INMA South Asia Media Summit, sponsored by the Google News Initiative, Stibo DX, and the Indian Newspaper Society.
There were representatives on the panel from legacy news media, broadcast news media, and a purely digital news start-up.
And, yes, there were multiple points of agreement.
Khandekar set the stage for the conversation by noting that even though the number of unique visitors to Indian digital news media sites every month is high, the vast majority of the market — some 80% — goes to Google and Facebook. The remaining 20%, she said, “is what everyone else fights over.”
Given that landscape, Khandekar wanted to know where each of the panellists’ companies were on their digital transformations.
“Transformation is a journey — it’s not going to happen overnight,” HT Media Managing Director and CEO Praveen Someshwar, said, adding there are two sides to it: to get reach and to go deep.
“The reach game is what most of us play,” he said. Everyone gets reports each month about reach on text and videos, and “overall we’ve seen healthy growth happening.”
Someshwar thinks, however, that “the more fascinating part of the journey is, ‘how do we go deep? How do we get subscriptions going, while also maximising advertising revenue?’”
HT’s subscription growth “has been tremendous for us over the past 18 months,” he said. Their reach is around 150 million in terms of text and just under 200 million for video, while subscriptions are around 150,000.
“The big question on subscriptions,” he continued, “is what your pricing is.” When they first offered subscriptions, HT only had one level. Now, they’re experimenting with micropayments as a less expensive option than premium subscriptions.
Khandekar acknowledged there is some hesitancy around subscriptions for general news. He wondered if driving subscriptions was any easier for a specialised and digital native product like The Morning Context.
The Morning Context
Ashish Mishra, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Morning Context (TMC), said that in just under three years of existence, they have more than 100,000 at the top-of-funnel, with “upwards of 10,000 paying users.” And while he thinks this is an excellent journey in 35 months, “the number that really stands out for me is what the subscription is priced at. For TMC, it’s about $5 per month, which is very healthy for a small newsroom like ours.”
Mishra reported that thus far, they’ve hit all the milestones they set when they started. “For the next year,” he said, “a big milestone for us will be to generate a profit” through reader subscriptions “to see if it’s actually sustainable.”
The main thing they learned is to “take your time and build a product first,” a core product that you can then build everything else around.
Avinash Pandey, CEO of ABP Network, said that their digital business is in the Comscore top five, so it’s a very sizable audience. But — as was mentioned at the start of the session — everyone in India is competing for the same eyeballs.
“Today in India, what most of us do is put out a headline — and no one is going to pay you for those,” he said.
Most news media organisations are in a catch-22 situation, he continued. Since tech giants like Google and Facebook control both the supply side and the demand side, “the moment we put up a paywall, we fall down in search results, journalists complain that fewer people are reading their stories, and CEOs like me think maybe we’re not doing a good enough job.”
It’s one reason he thinks the distribution of content for today’s news media start-ups is very different from what traditional media owners do.
“What’s important for us to notice, however, is the consumption patterns of the videos that we create,” he said. “It’s up to us to decide at what point to start charging the consumer.”
Salil Kumar, CEO of TV Today, thinks they were “just in time to get on the bandwagon in terms of the video market,” though he acknowledges they benefited immensely from their enormous existing audience across all platforms. One channel alone, Aaj Tak, “has about 52.9 million subscribers,” he said, making it “the most-subscribed news channel in the world.”
At TV Today, they’ve been experimenting with different things with their video market. There’s a “registration structure in order to watch a particular programme in an ad-free environment,” for instance, through which they get verified contact information such as a mobile number. They’ve also looked at micropayments, audience segmentation, and creating verticals for different topics.
With all content, Kumar said, there are “many opportunities to look at it in terms of multi-platform structures.” When the content is being created, they can consider how it will look on YouTube vs. Instagram vs. Facebook — without compromising the content itself
“I strongly believe that content will always remain king,” he said, adding something INMA CEO/Executive Director Earl J Wilkinson likes to say: “You can’t serve empty calories and then charge people for them.”
Khandekar mentioned the global success of short videos and wondered why more news media organisations in India weren’t doing more with TikTok-style videos.
Pandey noted ABP Network is “doing a lot of vertical videos” that are 30 to 60 seconds long but still tell a whole story. They’re especially curated for the Instagram generation, and “we know they have a short attention span, so we’re trying to squeeze as much as possible into that 30-second video.” While they may be a little late to the game, he said that “what we as traditional media bring” to a format like short videos is that “we’re telling a verified story.”
Kumar added that how tech is used in short videos has been something he thinks they can learn from when building and creating content. Even in a short 30-second video, for instance, “the first five seconds are key.”
Khandekar asked whether legacy brands face a choice between pushing for reach and pushing for high-quality content, but Someshwar said it’s not a choice: “Top-of-funnel is as important as going deep,” he said, “we’ve got to do both.”
Within the HT newsroom, he explained, there are clear roles set out. For example, “you’ve always got to put out breaking news, things that will get you reach.” That has a certain job, and it’s digital first. Then, he continued, “there are reporters who work their beat, who have to respond to breaking news as it happens but who then spend more time going deep on other news” to create that high-quality content. That content finds its way into both print and digital formats in a way that’s appropriate for each one.
Short-form TikTok-style video content “doesn’t give you any depth or loyalty at all,” he said, “but it gets you top-of-funnel — and that’s important.”
Someshwar said the digital side has always been profitable, that their biggest jumps in subscriptions have come through investments in data management and personalisation, but that it’s still subsidised by the legacy side.
For The Morning Context, on the other hand, there is no legacy side. Mishra said that they raised “less than one million,” which has been enough to “set the stage for us to build a product for subscribers.” It’s not what a big newsroom would need, he said, but it’s good enough for TMC. They’ve also gotten grants, and he said that although there’s only one source of revenue they “try to do multiple things on the revenue side.”
They were “very quick to offer single-story pricing,” he said. “We don’t want to be afraid of micropayments, because it’s something that a lot of readers want, even though we know they don’t build loyalty.”
Khandekar posed a question from the audience about whether clickbait is one of the strategies for growing videos exponentially.
Pandey acknowledged that “a lot of companies, ours included, have done it in the past.” But, to survive in this business, he reiterated what Someshwar said earlier.
“You have to reach people at the top of the funnel, by creating many videos, as many as possible, on all kinds of topics. Then, you identify your audience and you can sell them on the content that’s deeper in the funnel, where you earn loyalty.”
Kumar added that it’s about the art of writing a headline or caption — “it’s not necessarily clickbait if you give something that’s of interest to an end user.” Though he said that yes, in the long run, clickbait will be negative because it “pushes content down in search results.”