For digital news organisations of all stripes, the biggest challenge is often balancing the need to reach a big audience with monetising content, which usually comes down to putting it behind a paywall.
“But then will enough people see it for it to really matter as a piece of journalism? If you don’t put things behind a paywall, you will create impact. But will you be able to pay your salaries?” explained Faye D’Souza, founder and editor of Beatroot News, India.
D’Souza moderated a recent panel discussion at INMA’s South Asia News Media Summit, talking with Raktim Das, chief growth officer/broadcast and digital of TV9 Network, India’s largest news network; and Rita Kapur, CEO and co-founder of multimedia digital news platform The Quint.
Both organisations have found success by distinguishing their brands and creating the kind of content their competitors are not.
Multiple platform strategy
There’s no single solution to address this common paradox, said D’Souza, but there is some comfort in knowing most other journalism outlets are facing the same challenge, from heavy hitters like The New York Times to local start-ups around the world.
D’Souza asked Kapur to share some lessons learned regarding The Quint’s use of social media platforms.
The key, Kapur said, is to exploit what social media platforms demand without falling prey to playing a pointless numbers game. The Quint is instead focusing on using social media for distribution and building its brand as opposed to driving traffic.
“I think when you get into the traffic game, you’re diluting what you’re doing as a news entity and what you stand for and what your mission statement is,” Kapur said.
Still, social media has also been helpful for building an audience for those more difficult stories that are often not getting covered as much and don’t work in the “spray and pray” model, she said.
News Nine, the digital arm of TV9, India’s legacy television network, has maintained a similar approach despite its much different history and business model. “Don’t let your strategy be dictated by the platforms you use,” Das said. “I keep saying: Don’t write for the machine. Write for the viewer.”
The minute you start writing for SEO or for the algorithm, you lose your focus, which should ultimately still be good content, Das said.
TV9 has expanded its legacy television network into a multimedia news organisation with three broad genres: broadcast, digital, and over-the-top media (OTT).
Its broadcast arm consists of six different channels differentiated by language, with those six languages representing 1.1 billion of the total 1.4 billion population of India. This approach has allowed the network to lead the Indian market consistently for some time and to lead the nearest competitor by 25% to 30%, Das said.
Differentiating by language is the key, he said: “I’ve come across networks that have multiple channels within, say, the Hindi-speaking market so they tend to cannibalize each other,” Das said.
News Nine’s digital offerings needed to mirror the broadcast pieces and take advantage of economies of scale and avoid letting the organisation’s large size weigh it down. “When you grow beyond a certain level, size … can become a detriment. A lot of silos get created that get in the way of effectiveness and efficiency,” Das said.
His group created a common platform where newsrooms can access each other’s content, similar to a centralised content room concept. News Nine repurposes some broadcast content for digital but also creates original content.
“The biggest problem in the news business is that the content we create is perishable,” Das said. Some stories change so quickly that segments produced for television might not be relevant by the time they could be repurposed for digital. “That’s where we bring in the digital expertise,” Das said. This means leveraging broadcast content and creating digital-specific content that accounts for the nuances of different audiences and platforms.
News Nine Plus, the company’s OTT arm, has embraced a similar approach and built a library of evergreen, non-perishable content. At the center are long-form (9- to 12-minute) video segments that are on par with some of the more produced content from television, but with less overhead to make them very cost-effective.
The company also has a more traditional news Web site, News Nine Live, which is a free, ad-supported 24-hour news source.
Competing with podcasters and influencers as well as each other
Of course digital news organisations, large and small, are competing not only with each other but also with all manner of other entertainment and media sites.
“How can you compete for that audience attention without sacrificing any of the ideals you hold dear?” asked D’Souza.
“There’s a reason it’s called the attention economy,” Kapur said. The list of competitors also includes influencers who users conflate with journalists. But that can be an opening for journalists to gain real trust with audiences providing solid on-the-ground reporting.
“That’s our advantage in the current news landscape which is all very noisy with a lot of opinion, a lot of slanging matches, and a lot of curation and aggregation happening,” Kapur said.
The Quint is among a handful of news outlets in India that do ground reporting — not only on the big stories covered by multiple outlets, like the violence in Manipur, but also on under-reported stories. “We’re also sending out our reporters where there are no crews and no other reporter from areas where no one is selling that story,” Kapur said.
The Quint also differentiates itself with its digital-first news format, which consists of immersive, multimedia storytelling that can include components like data visualization, video, and short-form text articles.
The best uses for AI
Like all media organisations, both The Quint and TV9 are in the midst of learning the benefits of using Artificial Intelligence in workflows while defending against potential threats it poses.
The Quint is currently using generative AI for things like image creation and enhancing stories — not in actual journalistic work, Kapur said. They are also looking into using it for tasks like article summarising, which would give users different options for formats, audio or bullet point versions of a text article, for example.
TV 9 and News Nine are exploring the ways AI can take on specific time-consuming tasks to free up staff for more creative ones, Das said — for instance, the task of breaking up longer broadcast pieces into smaller chunks for digital consumption in a way that makes logical sense for the viewer.
Both are also increasingly using AI for audience research to improve personalisation, content recommendation, and predictive analytics. There is also potential to use AI to combat misinformation by detecting it, Kapur said.
Moving forward, AI may be able to give the journalism business other valuable advantages. Considering the expense of quality journalism, being able to reduce costs and generate revenue effectively by better understanding what the audience wants could be a real boon.