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No Indian news company has worthy enough content for a paywall: Yusuf Omar, HT

No Indian news company has worthy enough content for a paywall: Yusuf Omar, HT

Author | Saif Ahmad Khan | Tuesday, Jul 12,2016 7:56 AM

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No Indian news company has worthy enough content for a paywall: Yusuf Omar, HT

Hindustan Times’ newly appointed Mobile Editor Yusuf Omar has a big responsibility up his sleeve – his job revolves around creating the world’s largest team of mobile journalists in India. The move is set to bolster HT’s digital first policy and provide a further impetus to alternate forms of storytelling.

Omar, who holds the citizenship of three countries but is an Indian by origin, was earlier working for eNCA television channel in South Africa.

In an exclusive interview, Omar speaks about the tricky task entrusted on his shoulders, looking at journalism 2.0 and more....

Excerpts:

You have been entrusted with the responsibility of creating 750 mobile journalists across the country. This will be the biggest team of mobile journalists in the entire world. How do you intend to go about it?

It’s an incredibly tricky task. I think the “F” word for mobile journalism is fragmentation. You can’t get a more fragmented market than India. Just in our newsroom alone we have about 75 different types of phones. We have got Nexus, Android, iOS phones so the challenge is coming up with apps and techniques that will work across the board. I don’t think the initial strategy is to roll out brand new iPhone 6 Plus’ to everybody. But rather to identify who are the good visual storytellers and then invest in that talent but essentially you want to have a footprint of 750 journalists across the country that are already going out and telling stories and we just want to empower them with more skills.

We want them to go beyond print, text stories and start telling video stories. Not just video stories but also create something in terms of GIFs, Memes and a complete understanding of how mobile audiences digest content and then coming up with creative ways to fulfil that beyond just tweets from the field. Now we are looking at journalism 2.0. The difficulty is again that some journalists are relatively old. They say that I get millions of people reading my bylines every day.

Why do I need to do a video story? And the simple answer is because if you still want to be relevant in five years time then you need to be able to tell video stories. At the moment 50% of India’s internet traffic is made up of video.

By 2020, CISCO estimates that it will be 75% so even for legacy institutions like Hindustan Times and some of the oldest print fraternities, the understanding that we need to get to video is very clear. We are never going to be able to compete with the broadcasters for the kind of infrastructure they have.

I don’t think we are going to be able to compete with digitally native websites like Quint or Scroll who are thoroughly focussing on video. What we can beat them at is being the fastest. That could be our competitive advantage. Having a great footprint of lots of storytellers who are all able to shoot, edit on their phones and upload on social media. We are trying to take away as many restrictions as possible.

Do you think the prevailing conditions are favourable towards mobile journalism? Statistics say that the internet penetration is somewhere around 15%. The data packs are very costly and many people are still using extremely slow internet connections that affect buffering speed.

Data costs will always go down. India is the second biggest internet market in the world after China and China doesn’t count because it bans so much of the video content. I effectively see India as the biggest internet market in the world. Costs will come down and video consumption is already increasing. I think we should see it as an opportunity when working in any emerging markets.

I have come from South Africa. I think one of the reasons they hired me is because I have an understanding of how to make video stories appeal to people in low data areas. It’s a challenge. It’s about making videos as short as possible. I try and think we can tell any story in a minute whether it’s a cabinet reshuffle or a piece on Kim Kardashian. It’s also about using creative devices like a GIF or a Meme. It doesn’t use much data at all but it often gets across a similar message.

Think about 360 degree footage. It is made up of six frames into a cube which then turns into a circle. If we can get rid of one of those frames and turn it into a pyramid as opposed to a cube, you lose one fifth of the data. So it’s about coming up with creative ways. Looking at the Indian market where people are, they largely communicate on WhatsApp so how do we deliver video content to them on WhatsApp? I think India is going to be the fastest growing video market in the world.

You spoke about fragmentation and the different smartphones being used in the newsroom. As a Mobile Editor, how are you going to ensure a basic level of audio and video quality because if everyone is not shooting from the same set of phones then the video and audio quality would turn out to be quite different because an iPhone’s quality differs from that of an Android?

You are absolutely right. I think the first thing we have to understand is that the online environment of YouTube and Facebook has never been more forgiving of badly lit, poor audio and shaky content. I could arguably say that shaky handheld stuff is in at the moment more than putting on a tripod and keeping it neat so I don’t think the audience cares as much as we think they do.

I think they increasingly care about things that look organic and real. In terms of maintaining quality, there are two types of quality. There is a technical quality of the video and audio and there is quality of what you are actually putting out. Is it factually accurate? Is it authentic journalism? I am of the opinion that as much as possible we should get stories out quickly and take the Sky News philosophy. If it’s wrong it’s wrong but for how long?

We will correct it and your audience will be a part of rectifying problems. I am not worried about the fragmentation of different devices and I think that will balance out. I see a scenario where everybody inevitably moves on to high end smartphones once we identify who are the visual storytellers. 

In the last 12 months there has been an explosion of online videos in India. News organizations are trying to rehash wire videos and giving them a kind of treatment that they can be consumed online. Others are going in for original content creation. Some organizations are doing both. But the one similarity is that videos are of shorter duration and clickable value. We are not seeing many Vice-style documentaries. Do you think there is space for long form videos especially at a time when everyone keeps saying that the attention span of consumers is falling drastically?

I absolutely think that there is space for long form journalism but that doesn’t mean there is space for television journalism online. If you are going to do long form, you will have to look at the likes of Vice who still keep the length of their videos to about ten minutes. They have a very edgy, off the wall kind of way where they follow the presenter who is on a travel journey and telling a story. It’s very personality driven. They have strong personalities on camera.

I don’t think Indian news organizations have a lot of strong personalities on the digital front. We don’t have an Arnab Goswami equivalent who is focussing on Facebook and I think it is quite good to go at the moment. I think there are a lot of exciting things happening in India. If you look at Quint doing their explainer stuff or even if you look at AIB. I still look at that under the broader satirical news space.

People are playing a lot and they are not scared to try new things. But fundamentally the majority of news organizations are making the same mistake. They are trying to create television for online and it’s not working. The idea of an anchor delivering the news doesn’t work on Facebook. People don’t want talking heads. They want something far more dynamic.

We are not taking enough time to understand each platform. And you talked about clickable and shareable content. That’s another shortfall we see in the Indian market. We are spending the entire daily meeting discussing the editorial but very little discussion about how we are going to share it. What engagement we have in place? What comments do we want to create? How do we keep it evergreen? But the answer to your question would obviously be that there is a space for long form videos online.

When we are talking about the Indian news market we are actually dealing with huge numbers. For instance many of our newspapers have a circulation of more than 3 million copies a day. The websites are driving just as much traffic as a New York Times or a BBC. But the profits on digital aren’t that huge. Will that restrict creativity in the long run?

No! Finding creative ways to make online more profitable is critical in India. I think we are still doing a lot of banner ads and gutter ads. We are doing three second pre-rolls before our videos. All these are digital strategies that have been seen to be ineffective.

We need to increasingly look towards content marketing and native adverts to fill that void. Of course that means doing stories that are sponsored by some people. As long as it is clearly announced and your editorial and sponsored content can be differentiated, I don’t see a problem with that. That to me seems like the most viable business model. Another one of course is subscription. If you can get your content to be of high enough quality that differentiates from the rest, you can start charging people for it.

I personally don’t believe any Indian news company has worthy enough content to motivate for a paywall. But get your stories good enough and people would pay for it in the same way that we paid for satellite television when we had access to free television.

Despite its “Digital First” policy, Hindustan Times is recognized as a print organization. The newspaper is the flagship product. Many of the employees may see themselves as writers. How challenging is to convince such people to think visual and embrace multimedia in general and mobile journalism in particular?

They are not as resistant as you would think. We surveyed the entire newsroom and the vast majority comprising of some 85% said that they want to acquire mobile journalism skills. They want to start telling stories through videos online. There hasn’t been a sharp resistance. It’s quite easy. It’s the first time in history that you can almost quantify the influence that a journalist has by the amount of likes they have on their Facebook page, the amount of Twitter followers they have, Instagram and these kinds of things. If you can convince a journalist that acquiring mobile journalism skills will beef up their own brand online then the proposition becomes very easy. People are all about egos and if you are creating more content around their stories, name or brand, they are all into it. So it’s really a personal journey of each journalist to better themselves. Hindustan Times as an organization is trying to lift their game.

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