The digital divide

Exercise make us happier than money”, says the headline. It was one of the half a dozen stories on the Stylist website this Monday. The magazine that sells 403,000 copies is doing well in its digital avatar says Ella Dolphin, CEO, The Stylist Group. The thing that worked was “voice and purpose,” which Dolphin spoke about at length at Campaign’s Digital Media Strategies 2019 in London last week. It was the specificity of what Stylist offers, a clear, no-nonsense voice on feminism with a twist, which appealed to almost all of us sitting in the room. 

The Guardian’s Chief Customer Officer Anna Bateson talked at length about its campaign to raise money from reader donations. More than a million readers had contributed to this independent, liberal brand, ensuring that it was out of the woods. A bulk of its donations is coming from the US followed by the UK, among many other countries. As an aside — most British news brands, BBC and The Guardian in particular, are having an exceptionally good time in the US. The rise of Donald Trump, polarisation and the questions on the credibility of mainstream media means that British brands are seen as neutral and trustworthy. 

Stylist and The Guardian were among the 30 odd media brands that talked about their digital journeys at the Digital Media Strategies 2019 event. What hit me, again and again, was that the examples might be different but the questions that publishers were tackling while moving online and the answers they were getting were the same everywhere in the world. 

And India, where publishing is still going through its online tutorial, is no different. Publishers have to be clear about what they want to do online, they have to tackle cultural challenges that going online involves and tech is a big spooky thing that most hate dealing with. All this talk of ‘productising the content’ baffles them. And then there are revenues. The gap between what a brand gets for an online reader/viewer is usually a tenth or less than offline. 

Some of the most successful online publishers in India — Times Internet, The Express Group, Vikatan — have tackled these questions for years before hitting the right notes. Times Internet, the digital arm of one of India’s largest media groups, has chosen to become this wide arching firm that facilitates transactions online (through ET Money or Dineout among other brands), bought a video player and made it a streaming brand (MX Player) and has worked hard at putting data science and tech at the centre of its universe. The group has been at the internet since 1995 but hit the big numbers only when a member of the promoter family, Satyan Gajwani, took charge in 2011 and brought in among other people Gautam Sinha, a data scientist who is now CEO of the firm. Times Internet at a claimed 400 million unique users globally and over Rs 1,300 crore in online revenues, is by far one of the largest digital publishers. 

The Indian Express is about a tenth of The Times of India on readership and one of the smaller publishers. However, it is now India’s second largest online publisher after Times Internet at a claimed 138 million unique users across its group properties. What worked is focus says Anant Goenka, executive director, The Express Group, who took over in 2012. “Brand is equal to credibility, that clarity helped me with decision making while fighting in a commoditised market. A lot of people were throwing lot of things on the wall and seeing what sticks, we throw fewer things. The other clarity was thinking of us as business-to-consumer not a business-to-business,” says he. The Rs 30,550 crore publishing industry’s abject dependence on advertising has over the decades warped the business that is focussed on advertisers not readers. In the last few years, across media segments, the firms that have done well online have had a BtoC focus — from Netflix to Financial Times that just crossed a million paying readers. 

Just like their developed market counterparts, many digital publishers in India are trying to make revenue through subscriptions (The Ken, Rocket Post, Caravan, Vikatan) or donations (The Wire). Of course, it will be many years before Indian publishers hit the cliff that the ones in the UK or the US did. But it is good to know that the paths they have chosen are well-trodden. 
Twitter: @vanitakohlik

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