Home / Opinion / The big digital paywall question

There’s a quiet change taking place in India’s digital news market. In the past few months, several news sites have put some of their content behind a paywall. In fact, The Ken launched as a subscription-based website three weeks ago, offering analytical stories on technology, business, science and healthcare. The site delivers one in-depth story a day only to those who pay. Financial daily Business Standard’s website too started asking readers for money for some of its content, including columns, a few months ago. That is not all. Last week, independent news portal Newslaundry put some of its content behind a paywall, including its podcasts.

Abhinandan Sekhri, chief executive of Newslaundry, says that the site in its new avatar has put its premium shows like Hafta and Clothesline behind a paywall. Even some of its new podcasts and other special projects will be available only to subscribers.

In Newslaundry’s scheme of things, currently its daily news reports and shorts are available to all. “We will also have other models where premium content is available to a particular band of subscribers well before it gets to others," says Sekhri.

Although The Ken declined to offer comments on its business, saying the site is barely three weeks old, its founder said in a mail to subscribers that the website had broken even on a “cash flow basis". The Ken subscribers, he said, were helping demolish the notion that “Indians don’t pay for news".

To be sure, that Indians don’t pay for news is more than just a notion. It’s a reality which all digital news media have to contend with—whether they are pure-play independent news sites or part of the legacy media brands. Yet, some baby-steps towards paywalls are now being taken, even if on an experimental basis.

So, is India ready for paywalls? The question has no easy answers. Samir Patil, founder and chief executive of news site Scroll.in, says India is at an early stage in its digital evolution and it may not be ready to whole-heartedly welcome a subscription-led business model.

That the Indian consumer is very value-conscious is a known fact. And he doesn’t want to pay for his news. It’s hardly a surprise then that newspapers in the country are very low priced and the news channels are free-to-air.

However, executives in the digital media space argue that sceptics had raised similar doubts about the potential of the e-commerce business in India. Indian consumers will not buy online, they stated. “But eventually Indian consumers paid for online shopping when it delivered value," says Patil.

“Digital media may not be able to charge for basic news, but the consumer will pay when he cannot find a substitute," he says, adding that if digital media delivers value, people will pay.

On Scroll’s plans of going pay, Patil says that the site may start charging its readers by next summer. “When we have more depth and breadth, then we can ask for money from our most ardent readers. We will put up metered paywalls," he says.

The bigger question, however, is how many people will pay and how much. The sites that are beginning to charge now are unlikely to have more than a few thousand subscribers. And that is an optimistic estimate. Newslaundry’s Sekhri admits that its active subscriber number varies between 400 and 1,100 as readers keep moving in and out. But he expects it to improve with a robust renewal and auto-reminder system.

Let’s look at some wild numbers. If a news site, for instance, has 10,000 subscribers who pay Rs2,000 each per year, it amounts to a meagre Rs2 crore a year. Is the subscription revenue then sufficient to cover all costs, including employee expenses? Even small newsrooms will have wage bills that are higher than that.

Sekhri, however, insists that if journalism has to survive, the public has to pay. “It will take time, but the message must be hammered in that when the public pays, the public is served, and when corporations and governments pay, corporations and governments are served," he says. India will have to be made paywall-ready following in the footsteps of globally successful news sites such as De Correspondent in the Netherlands, Zetland in Denmark and The Texas Tribune in the US, he says.

But Scroll firmly believes both in advertising and subscription revenue since advertisers pay more for subscriber-based products.

In an earlier interview, information and research company Nielsen’s global president and chief operating officer Steve Hasker said that even though there’s this great democratization of information which is freely available in many different places, the ability to interpret news and write insightful commentary around the news, does not become easier. “So, the value attached to that goes up, not down…" said Hasker. “And now, done properly, there are more ways to monetize great journalism than there were previously."

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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