In March 2020, publishers in South Asia woke up to discover that 70% of their circulation was gone. Media leaders from Express Newspapers Ceylon Ltd, Eenadu, HT Media, Dainik Bhaskar, Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd, The Hindu, Jagran News Media, and The Quint discussed the devastating effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the industry and what comes next at the South Asia News Media Summit on Thursday.
Advertising and print impact
Media companies across South Asia were deeply impacted by rapidly sinking advertising revenue as businesses halted spending in the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. A second hit came as false rumours about newspapers spreading the virus lead to a drop in sales.
For Express Newspapers Ceylon Ltd, the first response to the pandemic was cutting costs as circulation dropped, Kumar Nadesan, managing director, said. Without a subscription model, Express relied on street sellers who were unable to sell because of lockdown and fears of spread via print newspapers: “We went digital, and we pushed our newspaper across the country. We continued to protect our brand. We went online with everything.”
Eenadu also cut costs, reducing pagination while keeping the same price. Director I Venkat said advertising revenues declined substantially, but the company was more prepared during the second wave and those losses were not as high as when the pandemic first hit. Circulation also held steady during the second wave.
Praveen Someshwar, chief executive officer and managing director of HT Media said, while ad dollars diminished, print advertising started to come back in July and August for the company.
“It’s too early to say print advertising has died,” he said. “I think print advertising will get back as it builds back reach and I don’t see reach dying in a hurry, but we do have a huge new opportunity in digital and many ways to monetise it.”
Content and audience focus
During the pandemic, reliable news was more important than ever. Media companies emphasised their focus on making sure crucial content reached their audiences across platforms.
Dainik Bhaskar’s team weighed several different responses to the pandemic, and ultimately decided they must get out there and continue reporting. Pawan Agarwal, deputy managing director, said they needed to address the myths of the coronavirus being spread through newspapers. The readers needed the newspaper and information it provided, and so the goal was to educate both readers and vendors about transmission of the disease.
With revenue disappearing, Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd had to shift gears and focus on readership, Sivakumar Sundaram, chairman of the executive committee, said. The most important thing was to focus on the customer experience. With the physical product gone, the company started connecting readers with the information and authorities to get the help they needed, such as housing and medical services.
The Hindu sees engagement with the printed product going up. LV Navaneeth, chief executive officer, said the reader is willing to pay more for quality content. Time spent is up and people are seeing value in 20-24 pages of well-curated content.
“The choice is, do you chase eyeballs or do you make a quality product people are willing to pay for,” Navaneeth said.
The pandemic has fundamentally shifted every aspect of the news media industry, from business models to reader habits. Some companies are already acting on new strategies to meet these shifts head on.
Jagran News Media has found ways to create custom pitches to advertisers, which includes what it calls virtual road shows, Bharat Gupta, chief executive officer, said. The company tapped into the mood of the industry, which was one of depression, and tried to speak to clients from a different place: “We thought, we need to introduce some positivity to bring that environment back.”
Ritu Kapur, founder and chief executive officer of The Quint, says over the past 18 months the company has been focused on giving a deeper experience to both readers and advertisers. Currently, the company is looking into the best ways to monetise video: “Our focus from the beginning was innovation and using video as a primary offering, not just for the audience, but also for branded content.”