The digital dilemma

April 11, 2015 06:30 pm | Updated 06:35 pm IST

Men read newspaper headlines on a street in Lagos March 31, 2015.  REUTERS/Joe Penney

Men read newspaper headlines on a street in Lagos March 31, 2015. REUTERS/Joe Penney

This is a blog post from

“Never have I seen a moment of so much excitement and yet so much anxiety,” said Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron early on in a recent speech, in which he went on to elaborate how his newspaper was tackling the digital transition. Baron was, of course, referring to the current state of journalism, a field where he has close to four decades of work experience.

Those involved with the organised world of journalism anywhere in the world will identify with that feeling. The excitement stems from the fact that every journalist now has a potential global audience. Also, the feedback for any journalistic work, essentially from social media, is immediate. But while enabling these things, technology has also ensured that anyone with the right skills can perform a journalistic role. It isn’t the exclusive preserve of an official journalist anymore. That’s why Twitter breaks more news than official news media, and blogs seem to have far deeper insights than newspaper opinion pieces.

Still, the primary reason for there being “so much anxiety” amongst practitioners of journalism is the crumbling of the business model that supported traditional media houses. (Of course, this disruption isn’t fully evident in developing economies such as India.) This is why: in the more advanced markets, print media has had to contend with a free fall of its most important revenue source, advertising. In the digital world, however, this key stream of revenue is largely conspicuous by its absence. Marketers don’t need the news media to reach out to an audience online. They may need some sort of content; not necessarily news.

As evidence of this, in the US, print advertising in 2012 was less than half of what it was a decade back. And, worse, for every digital ad dollar that news media gained, it was losing 15 print ad dollars. The data is from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.

That’s why, experts point out, the problem in journalism today isn’t a readership problem; it’s a business model problem. Try however much you want to increase readership and yet finally you need to figure out a way to make monies. The readership-revenue relation isn’t the one you can bet on in digital.

Having seen such a disruption, newspapers in markets such as the U.S. have sought to find newer ways to make money. One that has provided a measure of relief is subscription fee. Washington Post, the product Baron works for, can be accessed digitally for $149 a year. Digital access to its rival New York Times costs $8.75 a week. Though that’s not enough, it’s still a start.

Still, “the newspaper remains,” said Baron in his speech, “as of today, a predominant source of revenue for organizations like ours.” Oddly, it resonates with the Indian experience though it would be inaccurate to say that the print media situation in the two geographies is similar. Not quite.

One of the biggest differences is that, in India, advertising revenues for print media is estimated to grow by a compounded annual growth rate of close to 10 per cent between 2014 and 2019, according to a KPMG report.

But it would be a mistake to assume that this growth is uniform across print categories and languages. So while vernacular publications can cheer, magazines can’t. English newspapers are likely to find growth slowing, as subscribers shift to online platforms. That isn’t surprising, considering the English newspapers target a socioeconomic group that has access to the internet as also the smart devices.

This has put the Indian English language newspapers in a spot. The likes of Washington Post and other American publications can move forward with conviction toward digital, knowing well that that’s the only way to survive and hopefully thrive one day. They can, as Baron alluded to in his speech, design a truly integrated newsroom, get 47 engineers to work alongside journalists, and try to build new technology.

On the other hand, Indian print media companies seem to be caught between what’s still a cash cow (print) and what’s emerging as its disruptor. And as digital editions don’t pay yet, India’s English newspapers continue to seek newer pockets of print growth. And almost all of its time, manpower and resources are spent on the physical product and particularly Page 1.

It’s a bit like having to fear climate change but not doing enough to deal with it, as doing anything will disrupt business today. Some even try to seek comfort in the mistaken belief that print media will never die.

This is what, for instance, makes a newspaper hoard an exclusive story for print. In online, everything becomes a commodity soon. Also, the skills required to make a story viral isn’t something that traditional media houses are very comfortable with, either in the West nor here.

What newspapers, especially the English language ones, mustn’t forget is that their Indian target audience has ready access to quality news and insights from international publications. In areas such as science, technology, international affairs, sports and lifestyle, the lead that international news sites have is irrefutable. The well-heeled might even pay for international content.

They ought not ignore the news startups too. With absolutely low overheads, great focus and passion, many start-ups have the ability to disrupt the existing print businesses. Sure, they may not have a business model, right now, but they think it is good enough to use audience accumulation as a currency to get venture monies.

Interestingly, the advantage for India’s print industry could be the margins it gets from the newspaper business. Will it reinvest this in rebuilding its business into one that’s truly digital, entrepreneurial and innovative?

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