The Wan-Ifra Digital Media in-person event in Delhi took place on 16 and 17 March. Ostensibly, this physical event is held to exalt and levitate the somewhat intangible and possibly ephemeral or parasitical phenomenon of digital news. Notwithstanding the digitalization of communication, media, news, and entertainment in Indian society, the panelists in one session, Mariam Mammen Mathew, CEO of Manorama Online; LV Navaneeth, CEO of The Hindu Group, and Bharat Gupta, CEO of Jagran New Media, represented legacy news media seeking to take part in the new world through their digital channels and then to monetize them. The moderator was Ritu Kapur, the co-founder and CEO of The Quint, a wholly digital channel.
Discussing the recovery of the Indian news media after the steep decline of the pandemic, Navneeth said that among the conservative tendencies of the publishers, perhaps the most unfortunate is the reluctance to invest in talent and to experiment. This amounts to a significant confession from a person who describes his job as a privilege and perhaps the best in the industry.
On the reality of news media monetization, Gupta of Jagran New Media pointed out that of the Rs 30,000 crore (US$ 3.5 billion) ad spend on digital media in the country, the news media channels only get Rs 1,200 crore (US$ 150 million).
In response to the moderator saying that the media industry had not come together to tackle big tech, Navneet said that collaboration could be useful – in so far as what impacts the consumer or consumer education. While some news media organizations are expecting the government and the competition commission to act meaningfully on their behalf, Gupta’s response was more circumspect and perhaps insightful. He said that the government’s involvement or intermediation with big tech may lead to complexities and that the entire activity or process could potentially become a ‘trojan horse.’
Mathew was outspoken in her response to Kapur’s queries and tactful instigation concerning the Indian news media’s constitutional rights and role, the forthcoming digital competition law, and the industry’s collective response to the iniquitous ad revenue sharing of big tech. She forthrightly supported the need for the news media industry to collaborate, saying, “We need to minimize or get rid of the need for all the distribution channels and rely on 50 to 60% of direct or organic web traffic.” She implied that there is room to act collectively – that technology could perhaps work as a leveler for Indian media in its attempt to become sustainable and also to attract the best talent.
The two elephants, unseen but looming ghostlike in the conference room were the Indian government and big tech. The question is whether the two elephants will continue to dance benignly with each other or will the Indian government as in Australia and elsewhere, defend the value of its media industry content and help it to leverage its revenue share? Or is there also a third elephant in the room – the Indian news media with its blind mahout?