The latest trends in digital publishing

BY THE HOOT| IN Media Business | 09/10/2017
Publishers are losing direct traffic, regional language sites see an uptick, WhatsApp is India’s largest media consumption platform, and start-ups find that millennials are willing to pay for news.
THE HOOT reports on trends that digital players are discerning


Digital is the media’s new frontier,  and  given the nature of the beast change is its only constant.

When players from every facet of the digital ecosystem converge to talk, listen, and exchange learnings, what emerges is the wisdom of the moment in a constantly evolving universe. If  you listened in at a convention for digital publishers called Digipub World held in Gurgaon last month, these were some  noteworthy takeaways:


Ø On the web, direct traffic to publishers is coming down sharply. It is going to distribution platforms.

Ø WhatsApp has emerged as the largest news and media consumption platform.

Ø Free internet is driving growth. Fifty five per cent of all wireless traffic in June and July was on Reliance Jio. Eighty one percent  of  the time spent watching entertainment is on a mobile, 88 percent of the time spent watch sports, is on a mobile.

Ø Publishers need not a mobile first but a mobile only strategy.

Ø Content creators are asking,  how do I monetize a mobile audience?

Ø Small publishers are making subscription viewing work. Some are discovering that the millennial does not mind paying for content he is interested in.

Ø A new concern: is traffic data shaping content?  Do you now adapt your content to what Google Analytics is telling you works best?

Ø Content is central, but technology is indispensable.  And engineers are shaping content too.

Ø Regional language audiences are the new gold that everybody is chasing. 

Ø Finally, fake news flourishes because it has all become so cheap and easy, and because it pays. Google Adsense does not distinguish between content which is kosher, and that which is not. As long as it drives traffic.


Direct traffic to publishers is coming down

The traffic measurement firm ComScore estimates that  all top news sites today have  50 million plus unique page views a month. But of all these, direct traffic to publishers is not even 5 million. It is going down. The app strategy has failed for publishers. On the Web too, direct traffic is not there.

Traffic comes via aggregators of news such as the mobile app  Daily Hunt (5 billion page views a month)and UC Web and distribution platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp,  Instant Articles, and Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages). These are expanding the digital universe much more than publishers are.  (Google’s AMP also does not show the url of the  site where the article appears because it  serves it up from Google’s cache).

Most of all though, it is coming via WhatsApp which has become a primary source of news and videos for Indians, including fake news.

An emerging problem for print media is that you cannot build a news brand if readers have to access your stories through Facebook, WhatsApp or Daily Hunt.

Times Internet has become a massive platform by moving from being a publishing company to a product company. They have  developing Times Internet Ltd as a platform for much more than their publications. TIL has 37 plus different businesses, 257 million monthly users, and half a million paid subscribers. Its CEO says that’s at least comparable to Facebook if not larger.  When they look for someone to head their business, they look for a person who has been an entrepreneur. All of that builds TIL as a platform, more than traffic to the Times Group publications.


Expanding internet universe

India’s internet user base is estimated to be increasing by  100 million a year as smart phone usage grows, players such as Hotstar and Paytm have helped bring a lot more new users onto the internet over the past eight to 12 months.  Earlier, around 2014, a wave of retail following the e-commerce boom, had brought many on to the Internet. 

Reliance Jio’s free internet is also driving growth. Fifty five per cent of all wireless traffic in June and July was on Reliance Jio. Eighty one percent  of  the time spent watching entertainment is on a mobile, 88 percent of the time spent watching sports, is on a mobile.  (All statistics given here are derived from those cited in the panel discussions of Digipub World for which there are no separate urls.)


Is traffic data shaping content?

As the competition for audiences  in digital publishing grows are publishers shaping editorial to respond to what Facebook and Google are telling them? Should headlines be written with this in mind?  Are statistics shaping the focus on videos, and on instant articles?  Colourful examples were cited of how the same headline works with different audiences.

The editor of MediaNama said that in trying to figure out what his readers value they do use Google Analytics to determine  what sort of stories people are interested in, and what is working with the audience. And then also balance that with some editorial decisions, so that you don’t have a situation  where data is totally dictating editorial choices.


Smaller players are monetizing successfully

The received wisdom is that monetizing journalism in the digital space is an uphill task. Two examples of small ventures from completely opposite ends of the editorial spectrum  suggest that those who attempt it can make it work. One is aimed at the upper end of the subscriber market-- professionals, entrepreneurs, founders, investors who want in-depth analysis on a limited range of subjects.  Its areas of focus are  technology, business, startups, and science.  The other is a small news venture on WhatsApp, run out of Pilibhit district of Uttar Pradesh, (near the Nepal border) that targets a semi rural population with local news in Hindi.  

The Ken charges Rs 2750 or Rs 3045 a year and give one in-depth article a day. It functions on the principle good journalism must be paid for. Rocket Post Live charges Rs  100 a year for a subscription and provides a 5 minute local news video bulletin daily. Its selling point is that when you pay for news collected by journalists on WhatsApp you at least know that it is not fake news.

The logic of the subscription model is that  what you are offering has value, and you don’t want pressure from advertisers, so people must pay for it. The Ken’s finding is that millenials are actually alright paying for news. “They are paying for Netflix, Gaana Dropbox, so they just see this as a another service they can pay for if you can provide value for it.”

Rocket Post’s news broadcast service has notched up 14,000 subscribers so far. Of them, about 8,000 are paid customers: they pay Rs 100 a year. The rest are students who get the service free of charge.It provides updates on every important development all day long. The video news bulletin, which is of three to five minutes duration, gets sent at  around 8pm. WhatsApp was chosen as a platform because social media has speed, and because it works well on 2G which is the level of access rural areas have.  The subscriber base also comes in handy for surveys concerning issues of development and government performance which they periodically do. And this venture’s take on local advertising is that the advertiser is paying them for their subscriber base, so  he needs them as much as they need advertising revenue. The future plan is to expand the service to neighbouring districts.


Regional language audiences are the new gold

Traffic to regional language  news sites is growing. To cite some numbers, the Marathi website of Sakal reportedly has a million page views on the social media handle and on their website on a daily basis. E-Sakal gets 350-450,000 unique visitors a month.

Dainik Bhaskar says it gets 100 m unique users, and 3 billion page views a month. Asianet News Network’s digital venture is 18 months old, and it has seen around 100 per cent growth in the last five months. Its content is in four languages, and it claims 12-15 million unique page views in August.

Google has produced a report which estimates that the next 500 million people coming online will be regional languages users and they will all be on mobile. Out of these 200 million plus are hindi language users.

Google is working assiduously to get into this market., Its manager for large partnerships says they realized a couple of years back that if they did not embrace languages they would be out of this market so they are making investments across the board. According to them, 30-40 pc of entire user base is only in 4 or 5 regional languages.

They have introduced a Hindi voice search, are working on search for a total of 9 languages, Google maps is now in four Indian languages, and YouTube’s content is mostly in regional languages.

They cite the nature of content expansion year on year: 2014 was the year Hinglish came on YouTube with The Viral Fever and others, 2015 saw an expansion of content from South India, 2016 has seen new content creators in other Indian languages arrive. But even so  50 pc pf total internet content is in English, whereas there 300 million users worldwide in hindi and Arabic.

Getting online regional language advertising is the next challenge, creatives from most advertising is not in local languages, even as regional media executives say that the propensity to click on an Indian language advertisement is 88 per cent higher. Another constraint is the availability of technical expertise to small  digital publishers working in the languages.


Engineers are shaping content 

Wittyfeed calls itself  the world’s second largest viral news site. It began as a Facebook page started by an engineering student in 2012, with the aim as he puts it, of making people smile. The website came later with an influencer-driven strategy. Last year it earned revenues of Rs 30 crore. Its three founders claim a 100 million unique page views a month globally, only twenty percent of it from India. There is a global site, and an India site. They operate out of Indore, and the content is quite simply, trending news from around the world.  The formula for the global site : Controversial Photos, Celeb Photos, Beyond Irritating, Transgenders, Celebrities Deformed. Maybe engineers curating content succeed because they have less hang-ups than media professionals.


Fake news proliferating because it is cheap and easy

Pratik Sinha who started Altnews said at the convention that you can now buy a domain  name for 10 dollars, and get a hosting site for five dollars  which has Wordpress in it. You can just create a website in half an hour, start putting any content you want, you can put out absolute fiction and it will fly. Alt News ( and others like Boom!)  are discovering that there is a lot of fake news on mainstream media too. You now need fact checkers in newsrooms.

Fake news  pays because it drives traffic once the headlines are created. Google ad sense responds to traffic, it doesn’t see what you are being carried next to. It could be hate speech or fake news.


The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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