The fear of monetizing news

INMA South Asia Media Festival

L-R: Shaili Chopra, Sandeep Amar, founder, Inaaj and Publishers Digital Lab, Rajiv Verma, former chief executive officer of HT Media and president of INMA South Asia and Akila Urankar, president of The Business Standard
L-R: Shaili Chopra, Sandeep Amar, founder, Inaaj and Publishers Digital Lab, Rajiv Verma, former chief executive officer of HT Media and president of INMA South Asia and Akila Urankar, president of The Business Standard

Like most newspapers around the world, the Indian newspapers are facing declining circulations. In the past year, the competition from digital has hit home; and with print advertising stagnating, the discounting has become fierce. The seemingly never-ending digital transition shows relatively little revenue except for a few dailies. Indian newspapers are struggling to find an appropriate way to make their readers pay for digital content. With free content and social media becoming the primary source of news, printed newspapers are an endangered medium.

Most print dailies are reluctant to raise their newsstand prices even though the government has put a tax on imported newsprint. They are not ready to put paywalls on their news platforms for fear that their readers will not pay for the kind of news they offer. The same dailies that had a paywall a year ago, have them a year later – The Business Standard, The Hindu, and The Hindu Business Line.

Monetizing digital content was again a significant agenda at the INMA South Asia Media Festival in Delhi in November 2019. The session, ‘Monetizing digital content – The South Asia experiment,’ reviewed recent local attempts at monetization and discussed the possible paths forward. The panelists were Sandeep Amar, founder, Inaaj and Publishers Digital Lab, Akila Urankar, president, The Business Standard, and Rajiv Verma, former chief executive officer of HT Media and president of INMA South Asia.

Paywall first, then digital first

The session moderator Shaili Chopra asked Urankar to speak about her experience with content monetization at Business Standard. Urankar began by saying that when Business Standard realized that print and web ads could not sustain the financial daily’s business any longer, it gradually put its content behind a paywall. It was a struggle in the beginning. Seeing the reader’s preference for opinion pieces, these were the first to be put behind the paywall. As the response from readers was positive, other types of content were placed behind the paywall as well. “We decided that consumers have to pay for our content. It has been more than two years since we launched a paywall, and the outcome is positive,” Urankar said.

Nevertheless, a significant component of the business daily’s revenue still comes from print ads and circulation revenue. “Business Standard is a brand that still plays an important role in the business community. But we are now focused on being digital-first,” Urankar added.

Chopra then questioned the industry veteran Rajiv Verma, “Do you think there is a sense of hesitation when it comes to making readers pay for content? Or, is it preferable to keep content free and focus on the traffic and circulation numbers to be presented to marketers for advertising?” Verma gave the usual examples of The New York Times and The Washington Post that initiated their content monetization experiments long before the Indian newspapers. (The NYT put up its paywall at the beginning of 2011 with an initial target of 300,000 subscriptions.)

“Unfortunately, in India, apart from Akila, there has been a lack of courage to monetize content, which encourages you to create engaging and valuable content for your readers, who will then pay for it. We are still focusing on leasing eyeballs to advertisers who already have multiple options to advertise in the digital space,” Verma said.

‘Digital news is not sustainable in India’

Sandeep Amar of Publishers Digital Lab implied that the Business Standard is an exception, “The reason why the Business Standard has been somewhat successful with a paywall might be that it influences money-making.” However, he doubted that the pioneers in content monetization such as NDTV, Times Internet, and The Times of India are making enough money from digital. 

“They are stuck at one point, and if TOI didn’t have huge newsgathering resources and brand identity, its digital platforms might not be as viable as they seem. The Quint, too, is doing a commendable job, but its business is also dwindling. In short, the digital news business is not sustainable. The New York Times is not a good enough example to follow in India, which is one of the worst markets for digital news content monetization by publishers. My marketing team can show far bigger numbers than traditional news media, but advertisers don’t take us seriously,” Amar said.

Ads are not coming back

Verma interjected that running a high-quality newsroom is expensive. Apart from this, Indian readers get newspapers at highly subsidized rates, not paying more than the delivery charge. He said that when advertisers found better reach through digital avenues, the entire landscape changed. Newsrooms didn’t know or learn how to create high-quality content quickly because digital accepts any content as long as it is free or cheap. The readers are conditioned to free content, especially on digital platforms. “Someone will have to bell the cat. Ads are not coming back, and producing high-quality content is the only way,” said Verma. 

Agreeing with Verma, Amar pointed out that OTP services like Netflix and Spotify provide high-quality content without ads. The audience immediately shifted to these platforms because they found ads intrusive. The same practice could be applied to news media. “I have very little doubt that if advertisers and newspapers create something of value for their audience, then they will pay,” Amar concluded.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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