The Wan-Ifra India Digital Summit – virtually

Once again – ‘Make your journalism worth paying for’

Fredric Karèn, the senior vice president for editorial transformation at Schibsted Image via web from Wan-Ifra presentation

The Wan-Ifra India Digital Summit , which is taking place virtually over three afternoons, began on 18 July 2023. After the welcome, the first session was quite interesting. Fredric Karèn, the senior vice-president for editorial transformation at Schibsted, presented the group’s digital journey, especially since 2012 when the group took stock of its prospects and strategically decided to invest in digital content and operations, including subscription, while de-escalating its print investments.

Karèn says that the group which has eight platforms or brands including two which are only digital, straddling the Swedish and Norwegian markets has been successful to the extent that it is “digitally sustainable.” He added that if the group were to divest its loss-making print activities and was only digital, it would have a profitability of 10%.

From the Fredric Karèn presentation at the Wan-Ifra Digital India Summit on 18 July 2023
From the Fredric Karèn presentation at the Wan-Ifra Digital India Summit on 18 July 2023

This achievement over the past ten years has come from believing in the New York Times dictum – ‘Make your journalism worth paying for.’ Karèn said that a digital-first and foremost strategy was developed and followed without compromise for a decade. Taking the company’s strength in political news and opinion, he said the strategy was to “Define our core journalism; spend less time on print; invest in technology; and finally, in data.”

This has now brought the group to its next stage and a new strategy to be executed from 2021 to 2024. Karèn suggested that this entails keeping on investing in journalism; challenging new positions which might mean even newer types of reach and geographies; growing subscriptions using digital tools and personalization with smarter offerings; and, reinforcing premium ad positions in a new way with a ‘Partner Studio.”

“Advertising is not dead,” he said, implying that premiumization and relationship selling will have to explore and create new types of advertising. Investment in people is essential and what’s the harm in having an editorial person sitting next to a tech resource? Karèn added that in the next phase, there is also the potential to improve the group’s data position.

Rarely does one attend a conference session that contains implementable practical advice – that is, if one is first willing to adopt the radical emphasis that print media will either evolve or wither away as a companion channel to digital channels, eventually, if not immediately. (A subsequent session later that afternoon indicated that this is unlikely amongst the larger Indian print news media organizations.) However, without clarifying how many tech resources Schibsted has added in the past decade, Karèn revealed that in print production the group has reduced resources from 150 to 3 people!

From the Fredric Karèn presentation at the Wan-Ifra Digital India Summit on 18 July 2023
From the Fredric Karèn presentation at the Wan-Ifra Digital India Summit on 18 July 2023

His practical advice was to keep tech tools and data as simple as possible. A simple CMS is best – super simple and much easier for digital journalism. “Mix journalists with tech,” he said. “This is equal to magic.” As far as data, less is more, he said pointing to only three easy-to-understand data points to look at. The mission to 2024 is also simple – conversion of free readers into subscribers; to keep engaging readers; and to create a steady path of new readers – a funnel and a strategy for reach.

All of the above sounds prescriptive and simple, but it is unlikely to be followed by major Indian print media news organizations that are addicted to the high-calorie diet of print advertising. However, in the current situation of print circulations still far below 2019 levels and very lean pagination for most of the dailies, some organizations may still be capable of a creative rethink and rejig. Otherwise, the opportunity to learn from Schibsted is squarely in favor of the Indian digital news media, which is already asset-light and increasingly has that golden and outspoken flavored product – journalism worth paying for.

2023 promises an interesting ride for print in India

Indian Printer and Publisher founded in 1979 is the oldest B2B trade publication in the multi-platform and multi-channel IPPGroup. While the print and packaging industries have been resilient in the past 33 months since the pandemic lockdown of 25 March 2020, the commercial printing and newspaper industries have yet to recover their pre-Covid trajectory.

The fragmented commercial printing industry faces substantial challenges as does the newspaper industry. While digital short-run printing and the signage industry seem to be recovering a bit faster, ultimately their growth will also be moderated by the progress of the overall economy. On the other hand book printing exports are doing well but they too face several supply-chain and logistics challenges.

The price of publication papers including newsprint has been high in the past year while availability is diminished by several mills shutting down their publication paper and newsprint machines in the past four years. Indian paper mills are also exporting many types of paper and have raised prices for Indian printers. To some extent, this has helped in the recovery of the digital printing industry with its on-demand short-run and low-wastage paradigm.

Ultimately digital print and other digital channels 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. For instance, there is no alternative to a rise in textbook consumption but this segment will only reach normality in the next financial year beginning on 1 April 2023.

Thus while the new normal is a moving target and many commercial printers look to diversification, we believe that our target audiences may shift and change. Like them, we will also have to adapt with agility to keep up with their business and technical information needs.

Our 2023 media kit is ready, and it is the right time to take stock and reconnect with your potential markets and customers. Print is the glue for the growth of liberal education, new industry, and an emerging economy. We seek your participation in what promises to be an interesting ride.

– Naresh Khanna

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