WAN-Ifra India: Baby steps help push up the price of print
Indian news publishers are taking the first 'baby steps' towards a more realistic monetisation model for content.
But the discussion at today's opening session of the WAN-Ifra India conference was not just about digital, but about the supposedly challenged platform of print.
Recent months have seen not just editions, but the price of top daily The Hindu itself "bulked up" and chief executive Rajiv Lochan and editor Mukund Padmanabhan are unrepentant.
In fact, it's a "meeting of minds" as the two drive efforts to restore cover prices lost in the competitive years before the internet was thought of. Now an expanded Sunday edition packed with new features and quality long-form journalism is the focus of a push to get readers to pay more for content.
"We realised Sunday had become an important part of the publishing week in other parts of the world, and we went after it, Rajiv (Lochan) analytically and me informally," says Padmanabhan.
Both however were aligned on price, which he admits at up to 12 or 15 rupees, "may be quite radical", but is part of a broader strategic choice between a business model based on advertising or circulation.
The emphasis on circulation revenue - which "should be music to journalists' ears" - aims to find a paying audience for good journalism, rather than having to dumb the product down to meet available revenue from advertising.
Earlier in a panel session one delegate described as bringing together "the best CEOs ever", ABP chief executive DD Purkayastha told how "everyone had followed" a historic lead on reducing cover prices, creating a spiral from which it had been impossible to get out. The result was that newspapers now typically relied on advertising for 90 per cent of their revenue and what HT Media chief executive Rajiv Verma described as "a strange business model" of selling newspapers below cost so that, "the more you sold, the more you lost".
Those days before digital might have created a massive source of revenue which formed a barrier against the entry of competitors, but were part of a model that was breaking down.
Lochan, who came from a McKinsey consultancy project to run publisher of The Hindu Kasturi & Son, says there was a clear choice for publishers to either live on advertising revenue alone, or find a way to fund professional journalism. For newspapers with "a strong sense of duty and purpose", there was little choice, and the reinvestment is content has helped make The Hindu the country's fastest-growing English language newspaper... despite the price hike.
He says readers "haven't abandoned us" as a result of price increases, but is realistic that "there will be consequences". Padmanabhan says he and Lochan believe the experiment is "too early to judge", but says circulation falls - normal for the time of year - "aren't scary yet".
Increasing the price of "the most expensive newspaper in the country" was part of a strategy which included a 2016 relaunch/revamp of the newspaper. "It was more than a redesign," he says, "more a radical departure on content and approach."
Core area Sunday editions have been bulked up, with new sections and longer-form stories, while elsewhere a new common edition has been developed which can be produced at multiple centres. "We get read in all sorts of places, not just for local content but for what we do best - national and international coverage," he says. "It's a step towards the things only newspapers can do."
The "obsession with the readers" has seen a variety of new projects and features including creation of a service for home-buyers, and a STEP language proficiency app which exploits the paper's English reputation. From the incubation centre's "string of pearls" could develop a very nice necklace, he says.
Pictured: (from left) Panel members D.D. Purkayastha, Rajiv Verma (HT Media), Rajiv Lochan, Shirjeet Mishra (Bennett, Coleman & Co) with WAN-Ifra chief operating officer Thomas Jacob
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