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HT will launch digital news subscription model this year: Rajiv Bansal, HT Digital Streams

21-May-2018
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HT will launch digital news subscription model this year: Rajiv Bansal, HT Digital Streams

He is a 40 year old digital leader attempting to turn around almost a century old traditional media company, which has strong assets in the Print business. Rajiv Bansal, Chief Digital Officer and CEO of HT Digital Streams talks about why he believes HT is on its way to winning the Digital market in India and how the company will go a step further to launch the subscription model for digital news this year.

HT had revamped its office to become digitally sound in 2016, what were the biggest challenges you faced when you joined a year later?

When I came to HT we were operating as multiple independent brands. We have four core websites HindustanTimes.com, Live Hindustan, Live Mint and DesiMartini, which is our youthful brand and India’s second biggest movies site as per comScore data. Additionally we have one of the world’s largest multi-channel networks on YouTube which did more than a billion video views. We have an exploding branded content business, whose size we doubled last year.

The goal is to double the business again this year and it’s coming from a fairly decent base size. Then we have got a fairly large syndication business where we take not just content coming from our core products, but also push content from 250 other publishers. We power not just an Inshorts or a Dailyhunt, but also Factiva and some other big closed terminal services, we also do corporate content where we work with publishers on one side and corporate partners on another to make sure the depth of their website is strong. So, it is a fairly diverse set of business. When I came on board they weren’t quite operating in conjunction with each other, but in silos. So the biggest challenge was figuring out our core strategy and then reorienting the different things we do in one coherent manner to act on that strategy.

HT has invested several crores in integrating Print and Digital news, even before you joined the company. Did that investment bear fruit?

We actually created systems that integrate the content flow in the print version and on the website. So, when a print reporter creates a story, it becomes available in a centralized content management system. From that system, we can rewrite the news for digital or Print. Unlike our competitors we don’t need to create a different set of Print reporters and Digital reporters. We have been able to make use of all of the thousands of people who have been covering the hyperlocal nature of news for us. All we are doing essentially on top of the core technology infrastructure we created is taking the news brought to our core systems and making it available in a format that the digital audience has been consuming. That could not have happened until we had taken that first step into getting an integrated newsroom. We are also trying to deepen our engagement with our core audience who give us 10 times the engagement than someone who visits our site via social networks or Google search; as well as focusing on personalization of news.

Your core news websites cater to English and Hindi speaking audiences, none for the vernacular audience, do you see yourself taking a step in that direction?

Local languages are exploding. So, when I compare the growth of our Hindi product with our English product, month over month our engagement in Hindi has been higher than English over the last 24 months. And that trend is continuing. When Hindi started out it was at a much lower base than English, it’s growing to become the same size and will soon overtake it. When I talk about the multi-channel network we have on YouTube, it is not English or Hindi content. It is vernacular content, like Punjabi, Bhojpuri, and Gujarati—both news and entertainment. People are consuming content heavily in local languages. So, we are planning to invest heavily into local languages. That’s going to take a variety of shapes and form. And you will hear something on that from us in a few weeks.

Are you willing to risk the subscription route for your digital assets just yet?

Anybody who tells you in the news media industry that they won’t be taking the subscription route is either lying or soon going to bankrupt. So, we certainly plan to launch our subscription model. We are planning to do our initial trials this year with a couple of our brands, sort of dip our toes in the water, and then go bigger next year.

Publications like Economic Times and BusinessLine have already jumped into the subscription race, what took HT so long to get there and like the others would you also take the plunge first with your financial daily -- The Mint?

We will try different models at this point of time. I think a publication like Mint naturally lends itself to the subscription model because of the high quality of content. So, we will certainly be experimenting with that along with the others. Without our big investment on Digital, we wouldn’t have had the framework to start doing these things. To answer the second part of the question, our digital team is now in place with Anish Nair having joined us less than two weeks ago. But having said that we have been working on this long before some of these public announcements were made. We are just in the process of formulating a coherent product that we feel confident in. We want to make sure that we are focused on quality, and it doesn’t matter who came first in the market, or who does what in terms of a public announcement first. We are pretty confident that it’s going to be a good direction for us.

While HT’s non-print businesses have grown well of late, the bulk of your revenue still comes from the Print business. How soon do you see the scale tipping towards Digital?

There is this core audience which engages very deeply with the newspaper and that audience will continue to. But, clearly when you talk about 18 year olds, they are very heavily into digital, not only in terms of text formats, but actually in terms of very rich digital formats. So, from that standpoint I think digital is going to continue to explode in the future. But, that’s by no means a reflection on any lack of confidence in print. We feel fairly confident about print business.

How soon do you see your digital platforms making a mark on the revenues? And what kind of growth has it seen?

I think digital is already making a mark on the revenues. We are outpacing competition on every parameter. It has seen fairly high amount of growth. In fact we are staying away from those quick fixes which would give us even higher growth than what we currently are witnessing right now and are instead investing in areas which we know are going to give us lots and lots of returns over the next five years and beyond.

Would you say HT Digital has come a long way from the time you joined the organization a year ago?

From our standpoint we are in the middle of the journey, and it is an enjoyable one. We know that every day and every week we are a lot better than what we were before. So, in the last 2 weeks we have hit our engagement highs for Hindi, for English, for DesiMartini and for vastly different reasons. So, for DesiMartini it was the Sonam Kapoor wedding. We don’t consider ourselves judges of good or bad content for our core audience. There are certainly lines that we don’t cross in terms of our core brands because those reflect our audiences. But, at the end of the day if the DesiMartini audience wants to consume Sonam Kapoor, we are definitely going to do a very good job of covering Sonam Kapoor.

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