Print product in India is not going away for many more years: Sivakumar Sundaram

Sivakumar Sundaram, Chairman of the Executive Committee of BCCL, says over 90% of their patrons prefer the print version of the newspaper, however, the e-paper is an interim substitute

e4m by Naziya Alvi Rahman
Updated: May 21, 2020 8:30 AM

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Sivakumar Sundaram

Last Friday, the country’s leading newspaper The Times of India decided to put its e-paper behind a paywall. Within days of the decision, the industry was abuzz with speculations on other print players following the move and switching to the subscription model to save diminishing revenues.

To find out more about the reasons behind the move exchange4media spoke with Sivakumar Sundaram, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL).

Edited excerpts:

You have taken the lead amongst the big Indian dailies to switch to the pay online model. What were some of the key reasons for the shift?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live and interact with various categories. What it has also done is, enrich people’s lives with plenty of time. This has evoked a palpable change in behaviour especially with regards to the average time spent on newspaper reading, which has gone up significantly based on various surveys conducted. We have noticed a strong preference for the print version, but given the distribution challenges in some of the markets, there is a temporary shift to the e-paper/digital pdf version as the next best alternative.

In the current environment of caution, fear and fake news, the Times of India newspaper is sought after more than ever for its credible and curated reporting. Authentic news in the times of this pandemic is not merely desirable, it is an absolute necessity. With the lockdown preventing 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.

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.

Whatever is free and forwarded on WhatsApp groups is not valued. We invest a lot of time, effort and money in content creation and curation. The move to put our offerings behind a paywall for a token monthly charge is to demonstrate this value and give it the respect it deserves.

Is the move directly linked to the lockdown or was it in the pipeline anyway?

The move has been precipitated by the lockdown but it was an inevitability in the long run. We believe that the print version of the newspaper is still the best experience. The e-paper is only second best to the feel and grandeur of the physical newspaper. Few people realise this, but the print version of the newspaper is the only non-virtual medium of news and that makes it a multi-sensorial experience. It is a habit that gives structure to the day. It is a curated feed of news that satiates the need for critical information regarding the world we live in on a daily basis.

Each of our media platforms i.e. Print, TV, OOH, Radio or Digital has an intrinsic value, native appeal and its own business models. Each has successfully repurposed its content to aggregate audiences and build loyalty to their set of offerings.

The mindless forwards of e-papers on WhatsApp groups is one of the reasons the industry has aligned to put the daily newspaper behind a paywall and making the forward of e-paper on Whatsapp illegal.

How will this change the dynamics of your business post the lockdown period?

Several recent pieces of research done by us regarding the news consumption habits of our patrons have thrown up clearly that over 90% of them prefer the print version of the newspaper for the reasons already articulated above. The e-paper is an interim substitute and in my estimation, the post lockdown scenario will return to the pre-lockdown scenario soon enough.

What is your reading about this subscription-based model for the Indian market? What are the market dynamics you anticipate for this going forward?

The subscription-based model has been prevalent in India across several media including newspapers. It is not a new phenomenon. Going forward it will probably move in a similar direction and most news media will continue to rely on advertising as the main source of revenue.

From the advertiser perspective, the newspaper offers a unique combination of relevant consumer profiles, immediate reach impact, visual impact, authenticity and credibility and the opportunity to give detailed information. This will continue to be unique advantages of the newspaper for the foreseeable future. I do not expect the current COVID situation to alter this significantly.

How much percentage of revenue do you see coming to the publication from this approach in near and long term?

As mentioned earlier, this is not an initiative to drive revenues and therefore the revenue impact of e-paper would be marginal now as well in the future.

Do you expect the industry to come together for accepting this particular business model unanimously?

This is not a business model change. Yes, the industry is certainly together on introducing a paywall and I am sure every print publication would be announcing their plans soon. Most of them have already done so.

 

(Inputs from Dipali Banka)

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