In a bid to increase its presence in the regional news markets, Express Digital launched ieMalayalam.com in late January. The legacy media player is set to make further inroads in the regional markets with four additional offerings in Bengali, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu. “Ours is a credible and international news brand. We think that there is a lot of potential across the country so we are taking our credible brand of journalism to new markets which the digital medium enables us to do,” Anant Goenka, Executive Director at The Express Group told exchange4media.
Economics of news media
Fresh from having emerged as the second biggest digital media group in the country, Goenka was quite satisfied with the current positioning of Express. But he added that there were no prizes for guessing as to which company happens to be the undisputed leader. “Whichever market, medium, or language; chances are that Times of India will be number one,” he said. Having led the digital operations from the front since the past five years, he has had many lessons to learn.
Stating that he was “very keen” to turn Express into the “first newspaper” with a paywall when he joined IE initially, he admitted that “I abandoned that project a long time ago and I don’t have the courage to go for a paywall.” He was appreciative of getting consumers in the habit of paying for news and claimed that if Express was to have a part-paywall then he would like to activate it first in foreign countries.
However, he stated that realistically one cannot opt for a paywall at this stage if the organisation is large-scale and into the big numbers game. “Therefore, we cannot be talking about doing 60 million unique visitors a month with a paywall. India is a market of scale. It is about numbers,” he argued. Going further, he reasoned that companies need advertising support to constantly remain in the league of market leaders who focus on scale.
According to the young businessman, advertising rates being low in the country doesn’t help the cause of publishers. Drawing parallels between the United Kingdom and India, he wondered as to why ad rates in Britain were often 15-17 pounds per thousand whereas they were on offer in the domestic market at Rs 120-150. “Why do we keep giving away our inventory at such cheap rates,” he asked.
Speaking of advertisers, Goenka opined that direct relationships with clients were essential but the “amount of commoditized ad-space” coming in from direct relationships “will over time reduce” owing to native play, intelligent partnerships between publishers and advertisers coupled with new innovations. When asked to comment on programmatic advertising, he termed it as “a reality of digital publishing” in the 21st century.
“I don’t think we can step out of that. I’ve got 30-35% of my traffic coming from outside of India. The cost for me to collect direct advertising from each country like UAE, UK, Canada, USA and then collections will also be a big issue. I think programmatic bypasses all of that,” he said.
Fake news propaganda, credible journalism and gatekeeping
The news media has evolved enormously with the advent of social media platforms. Much of the traffic garnered by news media organisations is driven by the likes of Facebook and Twitter. “As of now, whatever growth we are seeing across the world in digital news consumption, it’s basically on search and social. We have to accept that,” Goenka said. As per him, earlier editors had the power of filtering information which enabled them to decide the importance of news items for their readers.
Balance in terms of news presentation was an inherent aspect of the profession. Goenka felt that while an editor would serve his/her reader with both a pro-Trump and pro-Clinton write-up, social media networks premised on algorithms would supply them with a similar sort of articles. This is changing the way news consumption has traditionally worked. Citing unprecedented polarisations in countries such as US, UK, Turkey and Philippines, he emphasised that it had never happened before and the worldviews generated by algorithm-aided news feeds of social networks had a role to play in it.
“The responsibility now is tremendous on them (readers) to make a choice of the content that they consume because we don’t have the ability now of curating and telling as to what you should be reading,” said Goenka. When the contentious subject of fake news was discussed, he recognised it ironically as “an opportunity for credible brands” like Express mentioning that what you read on their website is far more reliable than a mere WhatsApp forward.
He sounded a note of caution while delving into the plurality of the news business and the sheer number of television ventures associated with media. “There are a lot of players in the market today that are more in the space for the influence than for business,” said Goenka as he highlighted what he called “ego-funded journalism” with zero P/L perspective. Urging formidable news brands to maintain their credibility, he prophesized that consumers will eventually begin to discriminate between trustworthy and non-trustworthy sources of news.
As news organisations opt for integrated newsrooms, Goenka batted for integration with necessary segregation. “The idea of integrating was always that you can’t integrate too much. There has to be some kind of a wall between digital and print,” he said. Throwing light on yesteryears, he also recalled that ExpressIndia.com was the first news website in the country which was incidentally ad-free.
Goenka was speaking at IAMAI’s 11th India Digital Summit where he offered his perspective on the challenges facing publishers due to the rise of social networks and dominance of search engine queries.