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Era of ad-free news in the works? Encouraging reception to Business Standard's pay wall over the past 10 months

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Era of ad-free news in the works? Encouraging reception to Business Standard's pay wall over the past 10 months

On June 1 last year, Business Standard embarked on a path less taken. As one of the foremost business newspapers in the country, it decided to enact a pay wall on its website. Though the Indian newspaper industry is dominated by a few players, there is no denying of its vastness. In March 2014, the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) placed the number of registered newspapers in the country at 99,660. However, the courage which Business Standard has exhibited by choosing to experiment with a pay wall is not to be found in most of the domestic newspapers.

“We introduced the pay wall on June 1, 2016 and it is consistently being strengthened. We recently moved the e-paper which was the only standalone product to behind the common pay wall,” said Shailendra Kalelkar, Digital Business Head at Business Standard Limited. Presently, news reports which are exclusively published by Business Standard are pay wall protected while aggregated news items coming from wire agencies are freely accessible on the website.

Business Standard’s management decided to take the route after closely observing the digital approach of global publishers who “have gone pay some time” ago and “are bullish about their strategy.” The initiative is strongly backed by its editors and network of content creators. “Business Standard has always been respected for its content and we believe discerning consumers do not mind paying a small price. The central idea behind introducing a pay wall is to be able to invest in the premium product for the benefit of our primary stakeholders i.e. readers,” added Kalelkar.

The initial response to the pay wall has emboldened BS further. Though Kalelkar declined to reveal the subscription revenues since the pay wall was put into place owing to “competitive and other reasons,” he did mention that the results were encouraging. “As of now we have been an outlier in this segment and I must mention that the numbers are small to talk about. In the same breath, they are encouraging for us to invest and strengthen the product,” he said.

Besides restricting the access of exclusive content to subscribers, BS is also experimenting with other ways of content monetisation. Audience engagement programmes for premium subscribers is a big “focus area” for the organisation. The impetus for this was provided by the healthy reception to a post-budget event organised exclusively for premium subscribers.

Like most print media giants, the feeling at Business Standard is that print is here to stay despite the emergence of digital journalism. “While consumers are actively consuming content over varied platforms, print in India will continue to remain relevant for some time to come. At Business Standard we believe that both print and digital will complement each other for some time to come,” said Kalelkar. With the menace of fake news threatening credible media brands, he recognised the significance of editors to pick up relevant information for readers.

The newspaper is mindful of the fact that the road which it has chosen for itself might not suit rival media houses. “While it is for individual players to decide their strategy, any move in this direction will only help the industry become stronger in time,” he stressed. Like Business Standard, Abhinandan Sekhri’s digital news venture too decided to place their most popular offerings behind the pay wall from the beginning of the New Year. Speaking earlier to exchange4media regarding the viability of a pay wall in the Indian media, his words were similar to those of Kalelkar. “It depends on your product and model. There is no one thing that all need to or should do,” said Sekhri, Co-founder & CEO, Newslaundry.

In the magazine space, Outlook has shown indications of making consumers get into the habit of paying for news since January by selling daily passes for an ad-free experience of its website. Given the size of the print industry, very few publications like Business Standard and Outlook are seeking to develop an alternative to the advertisement model in the online space. Their success will not just depend on the uniqueness of the content they publish but also the consumer’s larger approach towards pay-walled news content and information, which is otherwise freely available.

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