The COVID-19 pandemic has forced news publishers everywhere to examine their business models for print, and prompted many discussions and debates about the importance of digital transition.

Sivakumar Sundaram, Chairman of the Executive Committee of Bennett Coleman & Company Ltd. (BCCL), which publishes The Times of India, believes in innovation of the print industry to suit the rapidly changing news consumption patterns without compromising on the core value of curated credible content.

In this interview he discusses how the improved credibility of newspapers has strengthened their bonds with consumers and the need for omni-channel strategies to monetise quality content.

The COVID-19 crisis posed a major difficulty to newspapers. But it also increased their credibility among news consumers. What were the measures ToI took to benefit from this?

The pandemic posed difficulties to most industries and it was no different for the print industry. It was a time when people were trying to grapple with a new virus and the surge in fake news and social media forwards only added to the panic. This enhanced the trust ratings in the already credible print medium, as shown in recent research reports. There was also an increase in the time spent reading the morning newspaper because of the work-from-home situation.

The TOI Brand Team launched ‘Times Verified’ as an avenue to provide readers with credible and curated information. Readers could send any unverified social media forward to us and we would verify the authenticity, which was then carried in our columns stamped as true or fake. This was a great service to assuage the unfounded fears our readers faced during the pandemic.

There was also the issue of vaccine hesitancy and panic on social media around vaccination with a lot of misinformation on the side effects of vaccination. We launched “Shot of Hope” and “Vaccine Nation” campaigns to educate, dispel myths and encourage readers to get vaccinated and encourage others to do the same.

The Times motto has been to guard the reader, and our endeavour as can be seen from the above two examples clearly does that. It is not about what or how TOI benefited, but how our readers engaged with our publications during the pandemic which was more important to us.

Has the increased credibility of newspapers translated into improved circulation figures?

The pandemic-induced lockdowns caused serious disruption to all physical distribution networks including print publications. We conducted a large number of workshops and local area engagements with Resident Welfare Associations to address their pain points to help them deal with the pandemic.

Our teams connected the representatives of RWAs and Housing societies with local authorities (municipal, police, medical, MLAs etc.) to ensure that the immediate problems were heard and solved. We ran an extensive “My Society My Pride” initiative, which also helped bring out best practices adopted by certain societies / RWAs and contextualised our readers’ offerings.

Therefore, the credibility of print coupled with our outreach to the societies, vendors and trade community helped us bring back many of our readers as the markets opened up post the lock down and strengthened our relationships with the ecosystem.

What is your observation on the industry’s recovery from the shock of the pandemic? How fast has the industry been bouncing back? 

The pandemic put the industry in a situation that it was not prepared for and with both the markets and distribution network shut, it was a black swan event one had not anticipated.

I must compliment the industry to have quickly recovered from the shock, by keeping the readers interest as top priority and how we went about rebuilding the distribution of copies.

While the copies have been recovering steadily, advertisement revenue is the mainstay of the print industry. Lockdowns and market restrictions on consumer movement directly impacted advertisement revenues during COVID wave one and wave two.

The revival of the industry is directly correlated to the opening of the economy as is evident by advertisement revenue recovery linked with opening of markets. The first wave was a slow U-curve of recovery, while the second wave has been a much faster V-shape recovery.

As things seem to be returning to normalcy, do you see advertisements picking up? What are your expectations for the near future?

Print advertisement has always been the barometer for the resurgence of the economy. The performance of print in July 2021 and the first half of August, gives us a huge sense of optimism.

With the vaccination drive, steady decline in cases and gradual opening of markets, buoyed by strong economic factors like liquidity, normalcy of monsoons, unemployment rate at 4-months low of 6.95% in July 2021 and pent-up demand, the 2021 festive season would most certainly witness an increase in consumer spending across categories like real estate, auto, FMCG, e-commerce, consumer durables, clothing, etc. India’s best performance in the Olympics has been a sentiment booster and provided a shot in the arm for advertisers.

Times Response, the sales and solutions team of The Times Group, has several innovations planned to facilitate consumer outreach for marketers to leverage the impact and immediacy of print. I am sure you would have seen the massive editions across all our markets on 15 August 2021, celebrating the 75th Anniversary of Indian Independence. 

Therefore, the strong momentum in print advertisement, evidenced by the print volumes in all the large markets, during the month of July 2021 and our success in each of the locations for the special Independence Day editions, is expected to sustain throughout the festive period.

Once local retail and F&B open up to normal levels, that will provide a further boost to the festive mood and I am confident the Times Group would deliver on the marketing and brand objectives this festive season to marketers.

A prominent criticism during the pandemic was that Indian newspapers were highly dependent on ad revenue which pushed them deep into crisis during the pandemic. What is your take on this?

To respond to this question, we need to understand what share or part of the consumer wallet that media businesses, including print, are competing for. Today there are a plethora of options for consumers in the news media and entertainment space, especially digital.

When we talk about subscription revenues, we need to understand the fierce competition for the same. The consumer only looks for value at a competitive price and is not concerned about your cost. In my view, the opportunities for cover price changes are marginal if the industry needs to retain and attract new readers to its fold.

The pandemic forced the industry to have a hard look at its cost structure, accelerate internal digital adoption and relook at workflow to make the print product more viable to counter the fierce competition from digital.

What are some of the learnings/changes that you would carry into a post-pandemic world? And, measures news media houses could adopt to tackle a similar crisis in the future?  

The pandemic made the industry realise that they have control only up to the factory gate. From the factory gate to the door of the consumer, the industry is dependent on the trade ecosystem, which by the way is the most efficient, effective and economical last mile distribution model.

I must hasten to add that this door-to-door distribution model is unique to India and is the mainstay of the industry in ensuring that the newspapers reach one’s home before sunrise.

Since the print industry is dependent on this last mile distribution trade, the industry needs to come together to innovate and work in a collaborative manner to prevent a similar crisis in future or be better prepared to deal with the same. 

How do you think print newspapers can attract the digital natives or the digital-first generations?

Every product, service or idea has a certain native appeal to a class of consumers. Print is a luxurious, large-scale experience of leisurely consumption v/s the fast-paced instant gratification that one sees in the shrinking digital screens. Print is reflective, contemplative, studied and one imbibes a much deeper understanding of subjects v/s a reactive, impulsive, rarely researched sharing on social media or digital.

Both mediums cater to different needs and mind states of consumers. The print industry needs to understand the rapid changes in consumer’s culture of consumption and innovate to create an experience for readers that is in sync with their changing preferences. At the same time, print should retain its core value of curated credible content, which would always remain its strong differentiator against digital.

TOI put its e-paper behind a paywall in the middle of the pandemic. Do you think the pandemic has accelerated the shift towards digital transformation and reader revenue for news media houses in India?

The COVID pandemic has certainly accelerated digital adoption for all forms of consumption including media. During the initial days of pandemic, the only access to the brand was through the e-paper and readers were willing to pay for it. It was a logical step to put the e-paper behind the paywall.

While the pandemic has certainly accelerated digital revenues, I would disagree that it has accelerated the shift. In my view each medium, be it print, television, radio, OOH or digital, have certain intrinsic strengths and native appeal.

As long as we are able to continuously adapt to the fast-changing culture capital of the new age audience, every platform would have its own profitable niche.

Do you think in the coming days reader revenue will have a larger share in the business of Indian news media houses?

Subscription revenue has its own limitations, and the market is very crowded now. Today’s e-commerce models, be it food ordering, credit card payment, taxi rides etc., are all based on cash backs and discounts.

The consumer is spoilt for choice and in this cluttered environment with digital companies making the consumer the product, there is a limitation on consumer share of wallet for subscription revenues.

An independent, curated and credible content is most certainly valuable; but in the current digital deluge of subscription offers, the scope is very limited for Indian news media companies to have a larger share of reader subscription revenues.

What do you think should be the reader revenue-ad revenue balance for a sustainable news media business?

Content creation is undoubtedly expensive and quality journalism needs investment in resources. With the limitation on subscription revenues as outlined above and shrinking advertisement revenue, media houses need to explore new omni channel strategies for monetising their content.

In an era where every brand, product or service needs to engage with their consumers through narratives, the future for content creation companies is very bright. The challenge is the pivot to multi-channel monetisation v/s the current dependency on a single advertisement revenue source.

Can we expect to see more initiatives from the group in the direction of paywalled content, subscription and reader revenue?

With the advent of micro payments facilitated by rapid digitisation in the banking system, the rapid growth of block chain technologies would certainly present opportunities for micro monetisation of content.

The challenge is not in monetisation but establishing the value proposition, customer acquisition and sustaining the annuity model.

Micro consumptions behind paywalls only work at certain threshold volumes with annuity subscription models and not for a single transaction. It is a journey which we must embark on to experiment, innovate and establish new business models.

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