Are Indian newspapers heading towards a paywall model?

While some newspapers have long been behind a paywall, some dailies are warming up to the idea of a subscription model as the way forward during these cash-strapped times

e4m by Tasmayee Laha Roy
Published: May 22, 2020 8:56 AM  | 6 min read

The coronavirus pandemic has led to fresh market trends and new consumption patterns. Amidst all the chaos of taking newspapers on and off the shelves across the country, there emerged a new category of readers. These readers are not new to the habit of reading newspapers every morning. They are new to the medium they have recently gotten used to reading their newspapers on.

While new media enthusiasts have long been waiting to write an obituary for the newspaper industry in India, print media does not look like they will die out anytime soon. The largest circulated daily in India over the last 3 years has managed to maintain a readership between 7 crores and 6.8 crores (according to Indian Readership Survey) without any sharp fall in numbers in any of the quarters in any of the years clearly indicating there is still an appetite for the medium in India.

But is digital India also ready to pay for their newspapers when they read it online? According to experts, it is a slow process but those who value newspapers will be willing to pay for it online or otherwise; sooner or later. The proposition, according to analysts, will also be beneficial for news operations from the revenue standpoint in the long run.

While a lot of newspapers like the Business Standard have long been behind the paywall online, there are brands that have just recently joined the bandwagon.

A week ago, the e-Paper of The Times of India, the largest selling English daily, went behind a paywall. For Rs 199 every month, TOI gives its readers access to multiple editions of the paper.
Why did the daily that showed a rise in readership even in IRSQ4 2019 amid a slow economy go behind paid walls? “With the lockdown preventing the smooth delivery of the physical newspaper to all our patrons, we feel it is our duty to make authentic, curated, vetted news accessible to them. The freely available e-paper implied that mischief-makers could download, alter and redistribute fake news at will,” said Sivakumar Sundaram, Chairman of the Executive Committee of BCCL in an interview to e4m.

“By putting our paper behind a paywall, we are ensuring that those patrons who want to read the original version of the news can do so with full assurance of its authenticity. We discourage the consumption of downloaded and forwarded versions of the newspaper as that can be misleading and dangerous for our society in these fragile times,” he added.

According to Sundaram, whatever is free and forwarded on WhatsApp groups is not valued. For BCCL, this is not a revenue-driving model however it has seen a good response ever since it was announced.

However, it is not just BCCL that has the support of their patrons when it comes to putting content behind the paywall.

The Hindu Group, who adopted the paywall model for their e-paper a long time ago and their website in February 2019, is also happy with the outcome.

“Our subscription numbers are very encouraging. The success of The Hindu motivated us to take all the brands behind the paywall. We even launched a hard paywall product However, we are still in the early stages to talk about numbers,” said Pradeep Gairola, Vice President and Business Head – Digital Media, The Hindu Group.
All products from the brand including BusinessLine, Frontline, Sportstar, Young World Club and digital-only product Crossword Plus are behind the paywall now. The brand that is already present globally in the model is looking forward to opening their subscriptions in Europe and the United Kingdom as well in the next few weeks.

The lockdown has actually helped the numbers grow for the brand, clearly indicating a prominent trend that is fast being accepted by not just the medium but also by the readers.
“We saw a huge jump in our subscriber base during the lockdown. Though we doubled the number of free articles on The Hindu’s website, increased the free trial period on ePapers, and took many more initiatives, more number of people decided to support our kind of journalism and paid for consuming the content. COVID-19 has phenomenally increased consumption of news world over. It has also forced people to choose trustworthy sources of news. So, we think post-lockdown, the trend will continue,” Gairola added.

According to him most of the legacy news organizations will move their ePaper behind the paywall in the next 3 – 6 months. Unlike their competition, The Hindu Group believes in making this a successful business model.

“Future has a role for paywall as well as ad revenue. Nowhere in the world has only ad-based models been able to support a large quality-driven news organization. While small niche sites could become viable with only subscription revenue, larger news organizations need a balance between subscription revenue and ad revenue. Either of them alone may not be able to support high-quality journalism at scale,” Gairola said.

It is not just the English dailies. Hindi and regional dailies too are supportive of the move. For most of them, e-papers behind a paywall is the way ahead.

“Several newspapers have created paywalls to access their digital content, and it’s only fair. A huge amount of cost is incurred in creating content, and if content owners decide to put it behind a paywall, it’s absolutely fair and fine. India is ready to pay for digital subscriptions, but not yet at a mass level. But there will be different pricing mechanisms, which will evolve and over a period of time, one would see people paying for digital subscriptions of newspapers,” said Basant Rathore, Senior VP -Strategy, Brand and Business Development at Jagran Prakashan.

Down South, M V Shreyams Kumar, Joint Managing Director of Mathrubhumi Group says that while their newspaper has been behind the paywall digitally for quite some time now they have not aggressively promoted it. “While people are used to free content, we must not forget that 80% of digital advertising revenue goes to practically two companies in the world. Newspapers are here to stay and if it is put behind paywalls online, sooner or later readers will pay for it,” he said.

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