The problems caused by the lockdown in the newspaper distribution system put the spotlight on the e-editions of dailies. While many e-papers, including The Hindu, Business Standard, Indian Express, Hindi newspapers Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar were already paid, HT Media and The Times of India brought theirs behind a paywall during the lockdown.
The moment people stopped receiving hard copies of their newspapers due to coronavirus concerns, the PDF versions of e-papers, including those which were paid, started floating around on WhatsApp groups for free. Calling it as an act of piracy, newspapers secured an INS circular, making such sharing of PDF files illegal and punishable.
In the meantime, various banks such as ICICI and HDFC tied up with multiple newspapers and delivered branded e-papers to their customers. This certainly opened a new revenue stream for the newspapers.
The ads on the physical copy of newspapers were already available on e-papers by default and the newspapers always tried to highlight the readership numbers of their e-papers along with the IRS numbers of their physical copies to impress the marketers. However, it was always seen as value addition to the ad spends on newspapers and no marketer actually ever bothered about the readership of the digital version.
According to BK Rao, Sr. Category Head, Marketing, Parle Products, the e-paper readership does not have an impact on their decisions related to advertising. “What matters is print,” he said.
“The e-paper readership never affected our decision to advertise on any of the print titles. The only thing that mattered was the physical paper, its readership and demographics. I don’t think advertisers care as to who and how many are reading the e-papers. Majorly because it is very inconvenient to read e-newspapers, especially on mobile screens — to pinch, zoom and adjust. In such a scenario, nobody is going to bother looking at or reading your ads, anyway. Hence we never looked at the e-paper numbers of any publications.”
RS Sodhi, MD, Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation Limited (the owning company of Amul), said, “Right before the lockdown, around the end of February, we realised that due to the raving updates on Covid-19 from the world over, news consumption was peaking. We invested heavily in print and television news in the month of March. We even struck special deals from a few of them. E-paper was not all that important. We only considered the physical papers, whenever we decided to put ads.”
However, Amul, which has been a daily advertiser on the print medium, decided to invest in e-papers as the deliveries of physical copies were affected due to lockdown.
“During the lockdown when distribution got affected, e-papers started making sense and we did invest in a few of them because of the e-papers. Because of discontinuation and sharp drop in the physical copies, the rates and deals that we were being offered by the publications were also very cost-effective. These were on a par with their reduced circulation numbers,” said Sodhi.
Experts feel that there was a need for having separate readership records for e-papers as the current readership survey does not capture it. Karan Kumar, SVP and CMO, DLF India, too vouched for e-papers to be a strong medium, provided a robust measurement is put in place.
“One has to deep dive into the readership claims of these e-papers and analyse the data just like any other audience measurement outcome. These include parameters like demographics, solus data versus non-solus data, reach, cost per reach and consumption, among others. I don’t think there’s enough data available to really make sense right now. Once this becomes available, we can make an informed decision about whether or not and the ad pricing too,” said Kumar.
Conundrum of paywall
E-papers carry ads on the print issue and it cannot attract separate advertising except a few banner ads outside the reading area. The readership numbers of e-papers have traditionally been combined with print readership numbers in order to impress the advertisers. Now, there are chances that the consumption numbers will go down with e-papers going behind the paywall.
The conundrum of newspapers is that if they eye subscription revenue, there is a probability that the move may impact the advertisers’ decision making. Which one is the better pick is for them to choose.
“This ‘additional’ e-paper readership number, along with the physical print numbers, would have mattered wherever proper data were available for analysis. Moreover, with making the e-papers paid, if reach numbers drop, it will surely affect the ad rates and the decision of putting ads in that publication,” Kumar said.
Explaining how e-papers are getting circulated, Kumar said, “There are enough instances of circulation of these paid PDFs for free. I am not just talking about the frivolous WhatsApp groups, but the credit card companies, banks and many such institutions are providing ‘electronic- news content in the form of PDF’ for free as a privilege to their customers. Then the entire efficacy of that paid medium becomes questionable. In this environment, how can you expect an advertiser to evaluate as to what kind of outlays are justified on this kind of platform.”
On the other hand, Sodhi of Amul feels that it will reduce some pressure on advertising. “It will improve the quality of journalism in a big way,” he said.
New opportunities in the new world
Advertisers have the firm belief that Covid-19 will force some readers to migrate from physical to digital and the entire ecosystem will have to accept the new reality and newspapers will have to think of innovative ways to monetise and capitalise the digital readership.
“Covid has changed a lot of habits and I believe that if not everyone, a huge part of the digital migrants would want to stay online, giving up their physical subscriptions. It is teaching people to live without restaurants, to make super chefs inside the families and much more. So, moving from physical newspapers to e-papers is just a small change and you can’t doubt it,” Sodhi said.
Rao of Parle pointed out his personal experience, “For some time now, a lot of publishers were trying to crack bulk deals for e-papers’ subscription. This was to help them in building a habit of reading e-papers. At the same time, they would find an advertiser to put some money for ads, in turn giving newspapers for free to their employees, clients, etc. But this doesn’t work for a brand like ours.”
Another important factor that needs relooking, as signalled by Kumar, was the pricing. “The current understanding and pricing of Page 1 and Page 3 and the last page, needs to be re-evaluated. Maybe the last page will not be as important a spot for advertising in the e-paper era. The concept of jackets and half jackets need to be re-evaluated and re-valuated.”
Paritosh Joshi, Principal at Provocateur Advisory, said, “OTT has proved that if you have enough content, consumers are ready to pay. So, as long as the newspapers are not a replica of the news wires (ANI, PTI), people will be ready to pay.”
“Blendle is a brilliant idea. It is an aggregator for newspapers, which offers news stories on T-VOD basis. You like a story, pick it up, pay for it and read it. Newspapers have a good footprint, so, there is no brand recall issue,” concluded Joshi.