In 2019, taking sides will count for ad revenues

‘Left’ websites gain as TV and print media jostle for leadership in digital news

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In India, all development and political agendas have become secondary to that of the 2019 general election. Come elections, the most popular news website would carry its weight in gold for advertisers. Thus, the beleaguered NDTV group had something to smile about when its website recently aced the Comscore list beating media heavyweight TimesofIndia.com.

Not only did NDTV with nearly 50 million visitors in a month become the most widely viewed English language news website in India, it also emerged as the most viewed Indian digital news channel in the UK. Comscore figures are a generally accepted industry parameter for advertisers, though many websites claim higher page views citing data from Google Analytics, SimilarWeb or Alexa.

NDTV edges past Times of India
NDTV.com’s Comscore data narrowly edged past long time leader TimesofIndia.com in April 2018. It clocked 49.40 million visits in the month against 49.37 million page visits by TimesofIndia.com (print), and 43.37 million by IndiaTimes.com (Bennett-Coleman’s digital – non-news website) and 25.75 million by TimesNowNews (the Bennett-Coleman group’s TV news website).

SimilarWeb’s data shows a bigger difference – with TimesofIndia.com clocking 103.55 million visits against NDTV.com’s 201 million. However, NDTV’s top ranking was largely because the Times group, like Google, has started pushing several flavors or properties into the digital platform race, not with a single brand identity but under various heads. Today, among the top twenty websites in India there are six Google properties, three Facebook properties and three Times of India properties, while the other media houses listed have a single property.

The ideological battle
NDTV is one of the few mainstream news websites considered by (not always neutral) observers to be more pro-Congress and anti-BJP in what they term, the left versus right ideological battle currently going on in India. That makes it popular with those who are politically against the current regime, especially since left-centric news makers seem relatively few and far in between.

Moreover, unlike its television business which is bleeding, NDTV digital is small, tightly knit and profitable. It closed the financial year ended March 2018 with an annual sales of Rs 144 crore and a profit after tax of around Rs 20 crore. There is wide speculation that NDTV is facing an acute cash crunch and that a stake sale in the television business to a third-party investor is being considered. Although the NDTV promoters, in a regulatory response to the Bombay Stock Exchange, denied any such intention of stake sale in September 2017, the speculation persists.

Both left and right news websites gain ground
Among other media houses described as left-centric that have surged in popularity is the Indian Express news website, which is in fifth position in the Comscore April 2018 list with 22.59 million visitors. It has left behind India Today’s website at 17.83 million visitors in the seventh position and is fast closing in on the fourth positioned Hindustan Times website with 25.35 million visitors) that is considered more ideologically neutral. (This type of ideological coloring or re-coloring is itself interesting for a media house hitherto considered a staunch Congress party ally and whose owner is a former member of the upper house of parliament nominated by the Congress party.) The Indian Express group’s re-coloring is also interesting since its management or editors are not closely linked to the Congress or left parties. It’s said that its news viewpoint is often left centric, largely due to the viewpoint of the journalists covering the story and not due to any unstated or avowed management policy.

Language news websites turn right
However, it is not only the left-oriented news websites that are growing in popularity. There is a huge surge in the rapidly growing right-oriented websites too, especially those in regional language news. Among the newly popular right-oriented English language websites are DNAINDIA.com with 9.18 million monthly visitors and Republicworld.com with 4.10 million visitors, both of whom were nowhere in contention amongst the top ten last year.

With the 2019 general election nearing, it is expected that the viewing of political news and analysis will increase. So opinionated websites and not neutral platforms will rule the roost in these politically charged times.