People keep trying to create a new, successful model for digital news. They’ve imagined all sorts of different versions. But it’s becoming clear that the fundamental thing is trust and respect; this is what engenders authenticity. And that is an age-old model. There used to be a strict, unbreachable separation between editorial and advertising content. Once that starts to blur, authenticity and trust start to disappear. Conversely, readers need to pay for quality content, just as they used to pay for newspapers and periodicals. This also builds trust.
Back to the basics
The media works in a cycle. Every time there is a new medium, first comes adoption by the public; then, in order to make money, new media people start putting advertising in their publications, which tends to be the lowest hanging fruit (in terms of how to make money). Then they over-advertise, crowding out their own product, to a point where people feel the need to avoid these ads. It reaches an inflection point and consumers begin to avoid the publications, news channels, etc.
We imagine ad-avoidance is new, such as the ad-blockers on the web. But remote controls were the first ad-blockers. The first remote controls were not made by TV companies but by a company called Zenith, for viewers to skip ads by changing the channel. In some ways, the problems of new media are the same as those of the old. Some of the solutions that have emerged are also the same.
On the web, the ones who make it work are those who build their reputation, build the reader’s trust, through their journalism. Some websites are focused only on maximizing page views, but it is important that the reader is guaranteed a certain reliability—of accuracy, that this article has not been paid for, and so on.
It’s not clear what the new model will be. But what has become very clear over the last five years is that many of the old rules apply. No longer are people talking about “virality".
In the first stage of web publishing you had what I call viral-chasers: websites that sought to maximize the number of viewers and collect ad revenues based on that number. For example, Buzzfeed, famous for its viral listicles, now has a serious newsroom and moved into serious journalism, while its Indian copycats failed to—and their numbers have crashed dramatically.
A newspaper is a combination of things: front page, edit, features, sports, and so on. You could think of it as a music album. The internet dismantled this: Now people could choose whatever they wanted to read. To continue the analogy, they could listen to the single instead of the whole album. You’re going back to a place where anybody who wishes to create an audience—as opposed to just getting traffic—and who needs the trust and has earned the trust of its audience, has also earned the right to do other things. For example, we started The Field, the sports section of Scroll, a couple of years ago. At a later stage in a digital publication’s growth, you begin to address the same problems newspapers do: Can you cover Bollywood without gossip, sports without PR?
Growing with the audience
Every medium has its own economics. Television, for instance, has high fixed costs, so it tends to be a medium where people are very cautious. We criticize Indian channels, but it’s not like news television in any part of the world has yielded great intellectual content, apart from the rare exceptions. It could be the sheer economics of the enterprise that prevents people from taking creative risks. You have to reach as many people as possible. It becomes a race to the bottom. This is not to justify the terrible quality of much of our TV news or entertainment, but to explain why innovation is rare. And why the right team finds it difficult to break through.
Online, on the other hand, a ragtag team can do much more experimental stuff, and grow with the audience. That changes the game. From the beginning, what we had to pursue was very different from a TV channel. In digital it is possible to try things. You can be driven by conviction instead of targeting the lowest common denominator.
Supply without demand
The demand-supply view of the world that MBAs and investors have doesn’t really apply to media. In media, the challenge is that unless there is supply, there is no way to prove demand. Unless you are publishing, you can’t tell if there will be readers or viewers. Media organizations are started by people who have an inner conviction, rather than any evidence, that there is an audience.
We talk about digital disruption in various industries. There are different kinds of disruptions. One is that technology has made your product defunct: typewriters, LPs, for example. But that is not the disruption that media faced. People are spending much more time reading the news. There used to be around one-two million subscribers to the print edition of The New York Times. Now there are over 130 million people reading its website every month.
There hasn’t been a loss-of-audience type disruption in the media; it is actually a re-sorting of how to make money from media. And in that, once again, the old rules apply. You need to have something authentic, something creative. The shows that work on Netflix, are the ones that take creative risks—Sacred Games, for instance. This is the lesson for newspeople, and it’s nothing new, the same story, across geographies, across media.
A company like Hotstar has hit upon what might be the ideal model for India, in terms of monetization. It’s like a funnel. At the bottom you have an extremely wide base, which tunes in only to watch the Indian Premier League and the cricket World Cup. Then there are people who watch soaps and other Star programming. And at the very top is a narrow peak of subscribers who pay the annual rate so that they can watch Game Of Thrones without any cuts. Each site will have to figure out its own combination of what people will pay for, depending on its audience, depending on its product.
As told to Prayaag Akbar.
Samir Patil is the publisher of Scroll, a digital news publication that now has more than 10 million unique visitors a month, more than any other web-only news site in India.