Identifying the lacunae in the online news space in India and the road ahead

The last year has seen an increased focus on content creation and consumption in the online news space. From a UC web browser investing about 200 crores in India (and Indonesia) to encourage more content creators to publish on its news aggregator app ,a stalwart like Indian Express floating an exclusive portal for millennials, or a group of experienced journalists coming together to experiment with a subscription based business news outlet ( The Ken), digital media is seeing a flurry of activity.

One of the greatest advantages that the media and entertainment space possesses over other markets is that good content can be consumed irrespective of the presence of competition.

It is not a binary model like say e-commerce, where once you buy a particular product, you are done with the requirement.

You read something in the morning, browse through other articles over the course of the day, read some forwards and click on anything that spikes your interest. An average Indian millennial spends about 2.2 hours on their mobile phone device and even with the data that half of this time is on social media, which is increasingly becoming the preferred channel of distribution for online content, the math tells you that you can fit in several 3–4 minutes reads.

Essentially, we are talking about articles which can be placed between the instant gratification that a ScoopWhoop provides and the deep analysis that is characteristic of a publication like Scroll.

The start of the online news segment was with the traditional newspapers (TOI, The Hindu, Indian Express) opening up their own websites along with web-only portals like Rediff and Sify.

The status quo existed for some time with other technology giants like Yahoo entering into the news business. The nature of the content would remain the same for the decade odd years though.

Portals such as Firstpost gave a distinct tinge by being digital only and focusing on insights and analysis instead of plain reporting.

Listicle sites are the next in line and their runaway success has seen even traditional news outlets adapt to the content and style and also promote click-bait style of journalism.

The success such sites have had globally has forced industry experts to rethink their content strategies.

Somewhere in the middle of all of this are portals like Scroll which focuses on commentary and analysis- albeit with longer articles. Long form narrative portals like Caravan exist but they are largely seen as catering to a niche set of audience. The entry of international players like Buzzfeed, HuffPost and Quartz makes the scenario interesting- and also proves the market opportunity.

The problems in this space are a plenty though.

  1. For starters, we are not used to paying for the news and the abundance of content available online doesn’t add any incentive to the user to do so either.
  2. There is no reason for the user to login and apart from the cookie based tracking, the news outlet never knows who its user is.
  3. The ads are serviced by ad networks and the end distribution is increasingly moving to suit the business interests of social media platforms.
  4. With ads and the associated listings on sister portals being the only source of revenue, new age outlets are moving to conduct events and conferences to cover costs. A far cry away from what their core business is supposed to be.

All in all, this is a sorry state for an industry whose case is only expected to strengthen with the increase of internet penetration, sale of mobile devices and a country where the median age gets younger and younger.

A few daring outlets tried playing with subscription-led models like ToI Crest but the efforts have fallen flat. VC Circle, owned by Newscorp, is known for its premier content but caters to a niche set of audience and also depends on event based monetisation. What is the road ahead then?

News portals can make money by either charging the customer (subscription) or by knowing the customer better and monetising on his activity.

How do we get users to pay for content or how do we monetise the data in a better fashion?

The former needs them to rethink on what kind of content resonates across demographics and the latter needs some serious tinkering on the technology end. An answer can be obtained by looking at international newspapers and the competition that the media is facing in today’s change. There is a two pronged strategy which I think news outlets should follow.

People focused reporting

All major international newspapers have sections focusing on content that is user-generated. It can be The New York times with its opinion section or The Guardian with its Witness section, we are seeing an increasing move toward user generated content.

We need to hear from people, their backgrounds, their day to day lives and their take on different things because fundamentally, as humans, we are interested in the lives of people.

Considering that less than 10% of our country is comfortable speaking/ writing English , a chunk of the newsroom’s resources have to be put into capturing stories to cover the sheer population of our country. One of the reasons this would click in a country like India is because though our cultures are diverse, the context of our backgrounds and upbringings are extremely relatable. I have lived/ studied in 5 states and have interacted with people from all over the country during the course of my undergraduate study but I have never faced a difficulty in conveying the context around my view points related to my career, social views and other general topics.

There is no single news outlet which takes people as a subject and talks about the happenings or upheavals in our day to day life . The changes might be due to policy, people or the social constructs set around us. A case in point would be the coverage of demonetisation. We have had a lot of photos of ATM queues thrown at us but do we know how a BPL or a blue-collared job holder’s family made through the cash crunch?

Some more points that validates my view points are noted below:

  1. The Quora Effect: About 20% of Quora’s users are from India. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that India and India centric topics take up a major part of the social media networking site’s feed. One of the marks of a good answer is that it peppered with personal observations and experiences . Indian authors with a large follower base have written captivating answers filled with personal anecdotes . It clearly points the reach of content which resonates well with audience and the need to emphasise on individual stories.
  2. Facebook pages: The advance of Facebook has provided a unified channel of accessing content. Indian pages such as like Humans of Bombay modelled along the lines of Humans of New York, posts pictures of people with captivating stories. Pages like The Better Indian and The Logical Indian which curates the web for articles have seen increased engagement for posts based on the stories of people.

Busy lives and an explosion of activities have made our attention spans short. The need to consume quick bytes of information has given rise to a listicle and click bait revolution that is aimed at providing the reader with a condensed form of ‘entertainment’ filled news. People focused reportage can keep an user hooked and still come across as a quality piece.

Superior design & technology

Here’s a quick snapshot of one of the special features on NYT.

It focuses on a topic that impacts a city, and adds along an animated picture which provides a summary of the power distribution mechanism. If you would like to see the difference in design standards and taste, click on any five articles on the NYT website and any leading Indian online news website and you will notice what I am speaking about.

Over the world, brands and companies are looking at design as a way to differentiate themselves in a world that is cluttered with offerings. What started off as Apple’s core strategy and has reaped benefits to the company is now being treated as a fundamental aspect across consumer internet startups (read: Airbnb and their likes).

With respect to technology, every media group should have additional ways of generating revenue. Ads are great but why let other players control ad networks? The amount of data that could be generated can help profile users in a better way and into the content strategy funnel. Here are a couple of other points as to why design and technology will play a key role:

  1. We need to level the ground in favor of news portals which are facing intense competition from sites focused on listicle/shareable content and present intelligent and relevant content in an optimised way. There is always a set of audience who would like to have an understanding of a topic in a way that is not too windy nor watered down. Infographics, sliders, charts, graphs and other data visualization tools are great to summarise information and provide a snapshot.

2. When the first strategy of talking about the lives of people works, it suddenly taxes the newsroom. To prepare all the visual designs, you need to have the data at your fingertips to optimise the cycle required to create content. Data mining and AI based tools can be effectively used to drive the efficiency.

The media and entertainment space is ripe for innovation. We are seeing new formats of content and distribution channels. It is necessary for online news providers to factor in the changing industry and make quick moves to maintain their relevancy.

At the intersection of great content and technology, between long-form and listicles, lies a huge potential that is untapped. If you were thinking of doing something on your own in this space, that is your big idea to go ahead. ;)

Footnote: One of the editors wrote a great piece on what makes NYT click and what it stands for. This was when their subscription revenues reached a figure higher than their ad-revenues. Here is a paragraph from it:

“We need to get much better at telling our own story. We journalists hope the work speaks for itself. But in a cacophonous world, where stories whiz by on Twitter and Facebook, we need to tell our readers that we are special. That our stories have value. Think of the saga of a man who dies alone or the struggles of woman who has Alzheimer’s. The story of the former child soldier of the FARC struggling to adjust to life after war. The story of an ambulance driver in Liberia, fighting the Ebola epidemic street by street. The story of young women held as a sex slaves by ISIS. These are stories with deep, enduring value. Unique, resonant, impactful journalism is our brand. It always has been, and always will be.”