A conversation with Ritu Kapur, CEO of Quintillion Media

‘Reader revenue is the future of news media sustainability’

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Ritu Kapur, CEO of Quintillion Media, in her office in Noida. Photo: IPP
Ritu Kapur, CEO of Quintillion Media, in her office in Noida. Photo: IPP

Reader revenue could be the way forward for the news media to survive and sustain as ad revenue models face a stiff challenge, feels Ritu Kapur, the CEO of Quintillion Media and publisher of The Quint, who says it will take a while for publishers to figure out the right path – print plus digital, digital-only, or digital-first.

In a conversation with Pallavi Choudhary, Correspondent at Indian Printer & Publisher, Kapur speaks about the challenges from social media, fake news, and fact-checking, particularly in the Indian languages, lessons from the pandemic, the transition to a more digital future, revenue-sharing with the big tech, and Wan-Ifra’s coverage of press freedom and women in media

News media sustainability

According to Ritu Kapur, as every publisher moves to digital, it is important to reflect on the editorial and revenue models, hinting that it is going to take time to understand them all. “It’s an inflection moment just now because there is a huge shift to digital with the discussion of ad revenues – programmatic revenue, to branded content, to display advertising.”

“As we know, the print media took a hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, and their circulations dropped. At the same time, many news media publishers made a shift to online media as they knew business opportunities and revenues could mainly come from digital models. They understood that a strong digital footprint was essential for economic sustainability, and nobody could survive being only in print. From that time, everyone started focusing on technology and understanding reader and advertising revenue.” 

Consumption has moved to the tiny mobile phone, Kapur says, pondering how one would make a move from the conventional full-page ads since the eyeballs are shifting. “I know from colleagues that the print media is recovering, but the truth is that no one can survive on just print. The days of ’Diwali ke din’ of six or seven front pages full of ads could be over. Ad revenue is moving here, and the solutions have to be sought on both platforms.” 

“A lot of the audience has shifted, and this is being talked about at these conferences. I am very curious to hear what everyone is talking about reader revenue. There is one school of thought that says reader revenue is the future of sustainability for news media. And there are variations such as hybrid models of print and digital, digital-only, or digital first. I think it’s going to take us one or two years to figure out which direction it’s taking.”

Ritu Kapur says she is keenly looking for any conversations that they can have with the big tech on sharing news revenue, just as they have done in Australia and France. “We are looking forward to these conversations. It seems that there will have to be a mix of reader and ad revenue. Globally, this seems to be the trend and, of course, some meaningful share from big tech, she said.

“The reader revenue model is the future of sustainability for news media, especially as there are now hybrid print and digital media models. There are challenges for ad revenue, and to overcome this, everyone in the newsroom has to understand the revenue structure and how to drive membership through editorial. Those days when everyone was working separately are over,” Kapur says.

Kapur is acutely aware of the need to understand technology as a publisher. (The group has an editorial software company called Quintype.) “I think there can be conversations on innovations for sustainability revenue. The discussion on the reader model will be great as well as everyone is talking about it. It needs to look at how the news media needs to understand technology. Too many of us are content-driven and just don’t think about technology. I mean, the reason why we are so dependent on Facebook and Google is that while they were developing technology, we were not worried about it.”

Press freedom and women in media

On Wan-Ifra’s coverage of press freedom and women in media, Kapur says, “No doubt, press freedom has become a big conversation for news media, and Wan-Ifra has been covering it somehow,” suggesting she is not impressed by the somewhat ambiguous attitude of the legacy media on freedom of expression as she mentions the recent incarceration of Mohammed Zubair of Alt News and the jailing of many journalists across India. 

Kapur recalls Women in News, the first panel she initiated in the pre-pandemic days, where there were more women in the panel than in the audience. “As it was a print media event, it was mostly men in the audience. If it were a digital media event, you would see many women. Women in news are a huge aspect of the Wan-Ifra events globally, and some of this became apparent in the webinars during the pandemic,” Ritu Kapur says. 

Social media, misinformation, and fact-checking

Kapur explains why social media and tackling misinformation and fake news must be part of any media discussion. “Today, social media has become a lifeline for us. It has become difficult for the news media to tackle fake news as they don’t have enough resources. The major platform I believe is WhatsApp, where fake news spreads quickly.”

“To deal with this, we have built a team of fact-checkers. The Quint is in partnership with Facebook for a fact-checking program. We are working with them as publishers, making them aware of how the algorithm can be put to work against fake news. There is a need to constantly adapt to developments in social media and new algorithms.”

The Quint had a one-year-long program supported by the Google News Initiative, in which they identified rural women as the most underserved regarding access to information during the Covid-19 pandemic. “We worked with many video volunteers such as Khabar Lahariya and Boat Club to reach out to rural women to find out what kind of misinformation they were receiving regarding Covid-19.” Kapur feels these are significant challenges and opportunities requiring resources. “Fact-checking needs to be in local languages. I wish we had the resources to track some of these issues in the countryside.” 

There are several studies on how views and fake news are shared on social media sites, Ritu Kapur explains. “WhatsApp is a huge mountain. The challenge is the resources we have versus the resources of big tech. For instance, a recent SOPA study showed that many readers find Facebook more credible than a journalist. And on WhatsApp, the group members only want to believe what another member of the group has said and are not concerned by the source of the content.” 

Nevertheless, Facebook is at least doing a fact-checking program, she says. There is no such program in WhatsApp because they don’t want to know where it’s coming from as there are privacy and data protection issues. “If you are a publisher, you don’t know what hat to wear when you are talking to WhatsApp.” 

Ritu Kapur says they had a one-year program with Google to reach out to rural women. Through Asha workers, they sent the fact-checked content back to them. “But the kind of fake news we were dealing with in the cities on Covid and the kind of news floating around rural areas were different. That is the kind of work that is needed.”

“There is a next-generation coming, and we are hoping to get a grant for a campaign on media literacy in schools. You could educate the students and their families, which should be a part of the school curriculum on fighting fake news. We worked on another initiative, ‘Purpose’ for senior citizens, to educate them about discrimination in fake news.”

Lessons from the pandemic

Kapur says the pandemic was tough but also productive. “The amazing thing was that productivity didn’t suffer,” she says.

Ritu Kapur concludes the conversation by speaking about The Quint’s initiatives, such as video journalism during the pandemic and what they learned during this period. “For one, the news media has learned how to be lighter in terms of cost structures and to be more agile in terms of technology.” 

“Nevertheless, what we were forced to look at in the pandemic – we are finding useful even when we are back in the office. Of course, the learning curve of people who joined during the pandemic was adversely affected, although we tried to address it. One thing that has taken a hit is the morning editorial meeting – where anyone could pitch a story. With Zoom, fewer people seem to speak up, which is a loss.” 

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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