Delegates at WAN-Ifra's Digital Media India event in Mumbai were mostly predisposed to the idea that they must find a replacement for print. But it took an outgoing print editor from Canada to ram home the message.
That editor was Michael Cooke, who has just completed nine years as the editor of the Toronto Star, the past five of which he has also toured Africa working pro-bono for the Canadian foundation Journalists For Human Rights.
He urged publishers to "lead from the front" on the challenges to journalism posed by social media and digital anarchy.
"They say that anger and hate spread faster than any other emotion ... and so that's lighting speed on social media ... as a leader you have to stand strong in front of this tsunami of poison and threats", he said.
While the future of digital was not clear, "the future of print is clear, and is not a very happy one."
He urged the audience to embrace digital and find ways to make money from it.
The eighth annual conference on February 19-20 and embraced WAN-Ifra's Newsroom Summit India, called on news publishers to play to their strength. More than 140 news media executives from 15 countries attended the event.
Among the smorgasbord of issues affecting the digital news media business covered during the two-day event were digital transformation, revenue strategies, advertising, fake news, audience engagement and artificial intelligence.
The opening session also included a panel discussion to tackle how media companies - rather than technology giants - could gain the larger share of the revenue pie. The session was chaired by managing director and chief executive of The Hindu Rajiv Lochan, with Jagran New Media chief executive Bharat Gupta, and Anant Goenka, executive director of the Express Group.
The message was that while the proportion of total revenue gained through digital publishing, it was growing and important. Lochan said digital accounted for less than five per cent at The Hindu, "we do it profitably.
"The Hindu e-paper has been behind a paywall ever since it was launched, and the brand quietly introduced a soft, optional paywall last week."
Jagran garners about three per cent of their revenue from digital. Within the digital ad pie, 60 per cent comes from display advertising "and that pie is increasing.
"How well we know our audience is where the digital journey begins," said Gupta. "Brands need to know how the audience is consuming content and what they want to consume.
"There is still more to garner from digital advertising. And, if time spent by the audience in our product is substantial, then we are ready for reader payment. At the moment, less than ten per cent of the audience fit in this."
He said Jagran was "investing deeply" in audience analytics and looking at how to target audiences to increase advertising efficiency. Targeting did not mean privacy invasion - "it simply means making advertising efficient and relevant," he said.
Gupta says the digital ecosystem "is going through what print went through" and believes there is not enough gravitation for language based eCPMs.
"It took 70-80 years for print to reach a threshold where it started enjoying advertising rates that were equivalent to the national dailies or English dailies. Digital, which is a much more measurable medium, is going through the same process."
A similar story was told by Indian Express executive director Anant Goenka, with digital revenue still shy of ten per cent, but a fast-growing number. "We have to know the audience and own that audience. And then sell them things that they would like to buy," he said.
He added that brand credibility was the strength of newsmedia, and that advertisers would respect this. Reader revenue would also follow, "if we find our content niche".
Goenka remarked that the Indian news media was "letting the wind blow its sails" rather than carving its own path.
"In the long run, a truly sustainable news media set up needs to take the pressure on the business model out of the advertiser to the reader," he said. "That is the only way to future-proof oneself."
Indian Express had clocked 130 million unique visitors this year, with hopes its investigative journalism would set it apart from other brands and help gain a dedicated audience, eventually willing to pay for quality content.
"We have a long way to go - in print and digital - in advertising and subscription that we don't have the mental space for right now," he said. But he added that "throwing things at the wall" to see what sticks was an inefficient approach.
"The fact that Apple News has failed twice shows every day journalism is tough. The fact that we have been dealing with journalistic content on a daily basis has created an incredible amount of goodwill and an irreplaceable brand."
He says it is "too early to dream" that it will one day replace print revenue. "For content to commerce to be successful, we need to own that particular audience.
I doubt IE could ever compete with a major apparel e-commerce site."
The Newsroom Summit India programme covered classic journalism challenges such as tackling need vs. want dilemma, social media impact on journalism, combatting fake news and the mobile-first news strategy. The highlight of a Newsroom Summit India discussion on the first day was a panel on 'gender parity in newsroom' discussing how gender friendly newsrooms are and how to improve the current situation.
with Neha Gupta/WAN-Ifra
Pictured top: Anant Goenka, and Bharat Gupta with moderator Rajiv Lochen
Above: Keynoter Michael Cooke said digital anarchy was "popping up all the time" (pictures WAN-Ifra)
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