Unlike Google and Facebook, news media is not telling its story well

Interview – Mariam Mammen Mathew

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Mariam Mammen Mathew, chief executive officer of Manorama Online
Mariam Mammen Mathew, chief executive officer of Manorama Online

Sandip Sen: How has Manorama’s digital journey been?

Mariam Mammen Mathew: In the last twenty years of Manorama’s digital journey, we learnt what our readers want, tried out different things, tested different technologies, adopted different methods of telling our stories. And as you know, the whole process is evolving, so every year it would change with new trends and every few months we would have new platforms and new distribution channels to work with. After so much change and so many years, we realize that content is still the ultimate and there is a ready-made clientele to lap up good content. You cannot play around with content. Good content still has readers. But what has changed is how to tell the story. And we have to tell the story as the readers want it, where they want it. So we have to find out where the readers are, and how they want to hear the story.

Of course it is easy to find where 80% readers are and to reach them, as against the 20% who are scattered all over the place. Thus, we concentrate on where most of the readers are. Though we would like to cater to all, it is just not possible, so we put our energies in covering what we can. Over the years we have tweaked our story-telling. What works in Instagram does not work in Facebook or our website or our radio or our television channels. In each medium the story-telling is done differently.

SS: So convergence is actually not working?

MMM: The forms are so are different, the user groups are different, and the technology is different. The different mediums have their own flavors and we have to tailor make the content according to the user group. So yes, convergence, as we know, is possibly a misnomer at this point of time. The news gathering to processing to story-telling to news distribution is very different for each medium. The user groups are different and the consumption pattern is different currently. If you are thinking of one news gathering, and everyone coming to that story and taking parts that suit their readers and tailoring it to the format, then no, that is not happening.

It is happening to some extent within our digital platform but not across mediums. But I agree, for better efficiencies we will eventually need to have some convergence. We will have to find a way where news gathering is common for all mediums and the story-telling and distribution for various user groups is done differently. That will reduce costs and improve profits. Since it is happening in several other places, I believe sooner or later it will come here.

SS: How fast have you grown of late?

MMM: We find video viewership growth to be exponential in the last two to three years. A couple of years ago video consumption was negligible. Call it the Jio effect – the connectivity and the speeds have increased tremendously. This has led to the rapid rise of video content consumption. The connectivity has become so much better. People are accessing the site from their feature phones. Videos have grown big.

For us the usage is slightly different. Our news sites use videos extensively not only for our television channels but for our print website, the radio website and the television website which are three different digital platforms. Since smartphone cameras are so good nowadays, every story-teller and editor normally uses a video. Videos entice people to read the long form stories. Small video snippets are used in most of the stories just to make it interesting for the social media, and that is working.

We are also now working on audios for we believe that it will be the next big thing. Audios (podcasts) are an untapped area that has yet to be developed and consumed in volume. However, radio users are growing and people are increasingly listening to podcasts.

The growth in digital media has been tremendous in the last few years and we believe the trend will continue with the use of smartphones. Almost 75% to 80% of the content today is consumed on feature phones. As far as video content is concerned, 90% of the users download video content through smartphones. It is usually the long form journalism that has desktop users. As far as numbers are concerned, we are doing 21 million unique page views per day.

SS: Where does your traffic come from. News or entertainment?

MMM: Traffic mainly comes from news as far as Manorama is concerned. So for us good content is an important factor and we work for it. News is still important to our readers. More than 60% of our traffic comes from news. While we still believe in good journalism, the only challenge is to present the story in an interesting way and across the social media and news media formats that the users are increasingly moving into. Initially people thought that round-the-clock news channels were not sustainable and viewer interest would fade. But despite being available in so many formats and nearly round the clock, the demand for good news coverage has not dipped.

We are happy to maintain leadership in the news segment. We are a language publication and would love to stay that way. We are comfortable in the niche space and would like to maintain leadership in the areas we have always dominated. For us it is better to dominate the niche segment than be another player in the general segment. Entertainment is also a big traffic puller but it is still in second place, as far as we are concerned. We do not see entertainment as the key driver in future in our segment.

SS: What is the future of digital media considering that ad revenues are abysmally low?

MMM: You see this was what we were discussing in the ‘The Business of News’ panel at the Media Rumble. We have to have subscription sales. Almost all the panelists agreed that there is no one size that will fit or happen for everyone. Each media house has to figure out what is the best for them in context of each content solution suiting their business model. For example, we have to figure out what we want to be. We cannot be everything. Manorama has always been a niche product being in Kerala and having a presence in every format in this language space. Newspapers, magazines, comic books, journals, education, books, internet, radio and television. But the readership is across the world because of the distributed diaspora. So it can be easily monetized.

It is time for us to realize that digital content cannot be free. Even in our print papers, 40% of our revenues come from subscription and digital platforms cannot survive on advertising alone. We need strong subscription models like those developed by The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. Good content has to be paid for. People have to pay and understand that there is value to good journalism and they have to pay for what they read. We at Manorama are trying out some paywalls too. However, these are in the early stages and will have to be tweaked to become more workable in the long run.

SS: Why do you get premium brand advertising for print but not for digital?

MMM: I really do not have a good answer for that. I wish I had, but it is probably because the global behemoths are able to sell themselves better. The duopoly of Google and Facebook have clearly outplayed the traditional media houses. We have not been able to tell the media planners how good and high quality our user base is vis-à-vis the user base of the digital giants. They have cabins in the offices of most of the media planning majors like Lintas and Ogilvy and have executives posted there on a permanent basis. They take away the cream of the budget for every major ad campaign as they are able to sell their story better. We do not have such daily interaction, pitching for every advertisement. At the end of the day, they will say ‘we are so much cheaper.’ It is a numbers game but we do not tell them that our user base is the traditional newspaper readers and hence qualitatively much better. So we lose out. I constantly tell my people that we are not doing a good job at selling our story to the media planners and the brands.

However, we at Manorama digital do not give our premium space out to Google or Facebook. We try to directly sell advertising for at least 60% of our properties. We think we have good content and a loyal user base, so we feel if the brand has to tap that audience, they need to come directly to us. Banner sales is only for the lower end properties. Among too many media companies there is a fear factor that if we do not give space to Google and Facebook, we will not generate enough revenues. Everybody must have faith in themselves. For that reason the ten major media houses who have digital publishing business like The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, India Today, NDTV, Bhaskar, Jagran, Amar Ujala, Eenadu and Manorama have formed an association of digital publishers and address the issues that arise particularly in the news publishing field. The Digital News Publishers Association (DNPA) meet each September to sort out the critical issues and hope to add more members and take digital news publishing forward.

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Sandip Sen is a journalist and author. His most recent book is India Emerging: From Policy Paralysis to Hyper Economics, Bloomsbury, April 2019. . He also writes on business, economy and technology in many Indian and International publications and is the author of the book Neta,Babu & Subsidy: Roundup 2000 to 2014.

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