As the immediate effects of the health crisis start to subside, the mood among Indian publishers is increasingly hopeful about the future. However, there is a renewed urgency to reassess some of the industry’s fundamental building blocks.

This was the message from a recent panel at WAN-IFRA’s Indian Media Leaders eSUMMIT. The participating CEOs took stock of the situation two-plus years after the pandemic started and discussed the steps their companies have taken to ensure that they are braced for a seemingly uncertain future.

The pandemic accelerated productivity improvements

“Any data or metrics [of today] compared to when Covid hit would look good, positive and hopeful. Simply because Covid was a disaster in terms of business and in terms of the crisis it posed for us,” said Dhruba Mukherjee, CEO of ABP.

Although ABP experienced “zero-revenue days” during the toughest days of the pandemic, Mukherjee said the situation has now greatly improved: advertising has started to recover, even if it’s “nowhere near pre-Covid levels”, while circulations are now at about 80 percent compared to before the pandemic.

Beyond the improving business metrics, perhaps the biggest step forward has been psychological, he said. “The fear of the unknown is no longer there. The fear is out. It’s just that you kind of brace for what new challenges each wave will bring and how you respond to that.”

Part of that mindset change follows big advances in operational streamlining and accelerated technological adoption, added Rajeev Beotra, Executive Director of HT Media Ltd.

“There have been collateral benefits [of the pandemic]. All of us worked on productivity improvements, several projects were fast-forwarded, technology was adopted faster, and processes were improved.”

As a result, companies are now better able to take on future challenges: “We are now prepared to face anything – we have seen very different degrees of peaks and troughs. It’s not as if businesses did not have peaks and troughs earlier, but the cycles have become much shorter now, and I think we’ve all learned to adapt and cope with it.”

Expanding the business model with paid content

The business outlook may be improving, but the pandemic caused many publishers to question their revenue models, most notably their reliance on advertising. Indeed, “The mix of advertising and subscription needs to change by investing in content, investing in journalism,” argued Dr. Bhaskar Das, Director of Unica Token Pvt Ltd.

Although the rise of digital paid content is a global trend, he said that print has a strong advantage in India as a trusted medium: “I’m very optimistic about print, at least in India, and the business model recalibration can take print to new heights. And in this age of lack of credibility and trust, print is the only oasis.”

One example of an evolving business model comes from the Hindustan Times, which implemented a paywall during the pandemic, and won first place for Best Reader Revenue Initiative in WAN-IFRA’s 2021 South Asian Digital Media Awards. Beotra said prices were also increased across the company’s websites that are behind the paywall. 

“It’s not as if we had a lean period throughout but there were windows of opportunity,” he said about the Covid-19 crisis. “The festive period was good, some elections happened, and the economy rebounded in between briefly, so all of us have learned to now manage those business cycles better compared to earlier.”

Accelerating organisational changes

This kind of volatility is here to stay, and businesses need to prepare accordingly, Mukherjee stressed.

“It’s been a very bumpy ride. I can’t say right now that we feel that it’s going to be smooth sailing. It’s not,” he said. “We feel now it’s going to be the order of the day, there won’t be any smooth sailing at least in the near term. There’s going to be turbulent waters and we need to just learn to navigate the ship accordingly.”

During the lockdown in April and May 2020, “when we were seeing our newspapers going out without any advertising whatsoever”, ABP started a serious reflection on their business fundamentals: “The whole revenue model came under scrutiny.”

That process led to an active diversification of revenue streams, one result of which was the withdrawal of all subscription discounts, Mukherjee said.

“We always had this question: Will readers pay for good content, the right content? We believed we created good content. But we never probably had that strength of conviction to try it out by stopping all [discounted] subscription schemes and asking the reader to pay full price. Covid helped us do that. And we were lucky to come out unscathed. And then it also gave a huge amount of confidence to the team and to the organisation that, yes, if you publish the right content, people will probably pay the full price.”

When asked if there has been a turning point in the recovery process, Mukherjee underlined the importance of agility.

“It’s a cliché, but the turning point has been the ability to believe that you can disrupt yourself and still come out stronger, rather than wait for somebody else to come and disrupt us. Now we are getting to that.”

Are there good times ahead?

When asked about the outlook for the future, Mukherjee was clearly optimistic: “They say hope is not a strategy but hope is a great motivator. I certainly live in hope and am a little bullish right now looking at the fundamentals, because we all made fundamental corrections in our model. I think we have a positive outlook for print in general. And for content as a business.”

On the other hand, Beotra highlighted the fact that newspapers should be ready to face challenging situations also in the future by learning to spot the opportunities that arise. 

“I think it’s more about being able to identify the opportunities that will keep coming, so it will eventually boil down to how well we can maximise these opportunities. People have done that in the last two years, and that’s how it will be for a while.”

Finally, Dr. Das underlined the need for news publishers to rapidly reassess their revenue streams: “Businesses don’t die, business models die.” According to him, a stable foundation to work towards would be a structure where about 65 percent of publisher’s revenue come from subscriptions and 35 percent from advertising.

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