'To make online readers pay, we need to separate news from native commercial content'

Shivendra Gupta, EVP, Business Standard, explains their paywall model, the challenges that they faced in implementing it, and the way forward

e4m by Dipali Banka
Updated: Jun 3, 2020 9:33 AM
businessstandard

Business Standard has been one of the early adopters of paywall for its news website. In a conversation, Shivendra Gupta, EVP, Business Standard, explains their paywall model, the challenges that they faced in implementing it, and the way forward.

Excerpts

Business Standard has put its online content behind a paywall. What has been the experience so far and what kind of revenue comes to the company from this stream?  

Business Standard put a part of its website behind the paywall about four years back. Our experience with this strategy has been encouraging. We have seen a steady increase in our numbers over the last four years. While we will not be able to share exact details, it will be fair to say that digital subscriptions contribute a significant part of our overall digital revenues.

What challenges did you face when you asked readers to pay for online content at the beginning? What challenges do you face now?

The biggest challenge has (and continues to be) been to get people to pay when they have been used to free content for such a long time. The fact that our competitors had continued with a free strategy also impeded our growth. Now, in the post Covid world, we find that most publishers have at least taken the first step to take their e-paper versions behind the paywall. We believe this will act as a trigger for a more robust growth in the future.

The paid online content model has been there in other countries for a while, but at the cost of print editions totally shutting down or taking a big hit. Do you envisage such a scenario in India or do you see the printed newspaper making a comeback once the crisis is over?

We believe that both print and digital will co-exist. In the Indian context, the print will continue to be more dominant for the foreseeable future. The print version is certainly going through an extremely difficult period currently due to the disruption in our distribution process. But we believe that the product will rebound due to its inherent strength. We continue to get reader feedback that they miss the print product and we believe we will be able to recoup the losses as things normalise. Even international examples of successful digital products suggest that print part of their business (though now smaller than digital) has been doing reasonably well since the time they have taken their digital version behind the paywall.  

What is your sense of this online subscription revenue model for the Indian print market overall? What are the market dynamics you anticipate for this, going forward?

The digital advertising business for publishers has been a disappointment for a long time. Structurally, it does not seem like getting fixed either. And at the same time, cost of digital delivery is very high. Technology on digital is quite fragmented with multiple operating systems, devices and social platforms wanting individual attention. The spends on technology therefore eat up the savings in printing cost. The only way then to make sense of digital investments is to build a viable digital subscription model. A good mix of subscription and advertisement revenue will be ideal for digital.

Given this background, we believe that most players will sooner rather than later have to move towards a subscription product. The biggest challenge for most players will be to migrate their digital assets to edit driven assets. Currently, most players treat their digital product as a native platform where it is difficult to separate the genuine news from commercial native content. To get a customer to pay for digital products, publishers will have to clearly separate this. Thankfully, at Business Standard, our digital assets have been under edit control from the beginning. This had certainly helped us in being a pioneer in the digital subscription product.  

Lastly, do you expect the industry to come together to make a case for readers to pay to read content online?

I sincerely hope so.

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