Print media in India is bucking the global trend and growing in circulation. Rising literacy rates and an efficient distribution network with newspapers arriving at one's doorstep without fail, come rain or sunshine, has helped expand readership base steadily.
On the other hand, digital "publications" are also witnessing a stable increase in online readership. The traffic is scaling-up thanks to the "Jio effect", increased internet penetration, cheaper data prices and rising smartphone adoptions, in both urban and rural India, fuelling this phenomenon.
Yet all is not hunky-dory for both the legacy print online players and pure play digital publishers. In spite of visitor traffic doing very well, monetisation remains as elusive as ever, barring very few exceptions. Is there a model on the horizon to make online digital publications a profitable business? Or is it all spray and pray?
Top line trends
News as a category is much bigger now and it slowly builds into engagement. Video is driving this growth in online consumption. Sports content online has witnessed massive consumption.
One surprising factor catalysing the online news consumption is the proliferating vernacular publications offering content in local languages. The "unduplicated reach" is much high in vernacular content. Hindi content remains big. Kannada, Bengali languages for example have grown at a fast clip from 3 to 4X times in the recent months.
The local language content is the future and digital publications unequivocally will be dominated by their sheer reach and numbers; some industry experts believe. But while supply and demand are exponentially growing, are the audience willing to pay the publishers for their offerings?
Legacy vs new
Legacy print publications have upped their ante by growing their multi-media output and capabilities, notwithstanding the production quality or lack of branded content or differentiation. The output looks generic and seems to be created to be merely there because the competitors are also doing it.
This oversupply is a sign of lack of focus and half-hearted intentions. Undoubtedly, legacy print players have a lead. They attract more direct and referral traffic.
In the backdrop of fake news, the audience trust and faith still seem to side with a legacy print brand considering the "rigour" and "due diligence" and seems to be higher than the mere web-only publishers.
Loyalty vs reach
For some industry players "reach" is no more important. Achieving "loyalty" in terms of the time spent on the publisher's website seems to be the new matrix to chase.
Therefore, how much a visitor "cross-walks" from one property to the other seems to be gaining more attention in planning. It is also a healthy barometer of the content pull and stickiness. The path to viability lies in a combination of user generated revenue and ad sales.
Do we see audience have more app affinity or equity? Is website passé? Some believe the question is slightly more complicated. But one thing is clear in their minds, that is to give as many entry points as possible to the audience is vital to sustain the business and therefore app strategy becomes part of the consideration when it comes to digital execution plans.
In spite of the best efforts the audience seems to be yet not ready to pay for online subscription. However, there are some examples outside India where publishers have created a viable model for digital operations. The examples of NYTimes, Economist come to mind.
They have tasted success in making money through online digital subscriptions. Grudgingly, the industry leaders believe Indian publishers lack the heart to go through the emotional pains of the digital world with humility and conviction, unlike the West where publishers have sunk huge amounts to get their digital road map ready and steady.
Knack for vernac
The Indian language press seems to be growing at a ballistic pace. The publishers not only know a thing or two about their regional audience but are also boldly betting in that direction. Many Indian languages legacy players are sitting on a mountain of archival content, pure gold, which can have multiple uses if planned and marketed well.
While on the one hand we are seeing ever increasing demand for local content and the audience seems to be hungry for more, on the other hand, the advertising ecosystem online seems to be ill equipped to operate in a contextual environment. For example, English video ads more often than not, play in English in the local language videos.
The future of the digital publishing may increasingly comprise of data scientists and content team working in tandem. Undoubtedly content is the key but marketing it seems to be everything.
A key role is set to emerge for predictive analytics on sending the right notification, at the right time and do it all in a contextual environment in an evolving newsroom culture.
All these forces may well disrupt the way legacy print publications and digital news players will evolve and move hopefully to a path to profitability.