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Cracks in paywall: How are digital publishers dealing with this growing menace

With the subscription revenues of most of the Indian publishers on the rise, users trying to access content behind the paywall and sharing it on social media platforms has become a growing concern for the industry. As per industry estimates, publishers are losing around 20% in revenue because of pilferage

In the last week of February, a tech blogger with 2 million followers on Instagram posted a video showcasing hacks to unlock content behind the hard paywall on nytimes.com. The video was seen by more than one million people.


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With the subscription revenues of most of the Indian publishers on the rise, users trying to access content behind the paywall and sharing it on social media platforms has become a growing concern for the industry.

As per industry experts, publishers who offer premium content with a subscription model are facing a loss of around 20% in revenues because of this pilferage.

Pradeep Gairola

Pradeep Gairola, VP & Business Head, Digital, The Hindu, which has around 10% of its content behind the paywall, said, “The entire fraternity is aware of this kind of leakage. It is a worldwide problem and it will never stop. The people who are involved in such things are dramatically price-sensitive. It also depends upon the platform wherein such things surface.”

“We spoke to Telegram because of the leakage of our content there, and they helped us to resolve it. Platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp groups are flooded with content that is behind the paywall or someone paid for it. So the platforms should take a step to solve this issue," he added.

Shivendra Gupta

Shivendra Gupta, MD & CEO, Business Standard, said, “I think more than reader behaviour, it is the role of a few influencers who disseminate the content illegally that needs examination. These influencers who typically also engage in miselling financial products unlawfully exploit the current technology gaps to misuse our products on platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. It is indeed a serious issue for publishers and hurts our business.”

Business Standard has almost 20% of its digital revenue coming in from subscriptions.

Industry leaders suggest that if the platforms keep the quality of the content high, more readers will be willing to pay.

Ashish Mishra

Ashish Mishra, CEO, MorningContext, said that this is a never-ending problem. “For a lot of publishers, the security is at the basic level for a hassle-free user experience. I think the pilferage will always be there. Piracy of content should be the last thing to worry about. Publishers should focus on content. They should be concerned about the audiences they cater to and serve them their best," he added.

Sanjeev Kumar

Sanjeev Kumar, Business Head, Economictimes.com, said, “Publishers need to keep a close eye on the ball. Readers are evolving and they expect value for their money if they are paying for news. Publishers will have to meet that demand through the quality of content and providing a great user experience if they want readers to stick around and keep coming back to your platform.”

Economictimes.com is expecting revenue growth of 30% this year from subscriptions.

How to reduce content theft?

Although pilferage is a never-ending problem, in order to mitigate this challenge, the publishers are also working on their technology and systems to detect such activities and reduce the leakage.

Sunny Sen

Sunny Sen, Co-founder & CEO, TSB Media Ventures, said, “There are a few ways of preventing this. One of the ways is to show some parts of the article and keep the entire article in the backend. And once the payment has been processed only then the reader can access the entire article. The technology framework should be in place. Publishers need superior technology to enable the system.”

Business Standard’s Gupta said that as an industry, publishers have been trying to raise consumer awareness about the cost of creating good and credible content, and the additional value given to premium subscribers. “There's also technology to prevent some of the hacks and some publishers have even taken the legal route against mass piracy,” he said. 

Sanjay Sindhwani

Similarly, Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO, of The Indian Express Digital said that most of the time people share it out of ignorance. He said, “People don't even realise what they are doing is illegal. Sharing e-paper is illegal. It is a proprietary item and you cannot share it freely. If you are accessing something behind the paywall, you are not supposed to share it with others. So educating audiences is a major step. We are ideating a campaign to make people aware of this issue.”

“We work with Bytescare, a cybersecurity company, which helps content creators identify their piracy information online with the help of AI, Automation and Several Data Collection techniques. They find out where our content is being shared. When I do this for my web content, it covers my paid content automatically. Any leakage of a content piece, be it behind the paywall or without the paywall, is a loss for us in some form," he added.

Kumar of Economictimes.com said that there are multiple strategies that publishers can use including exclusive content, hard or metered paywall, pay per story. "Each of these needs a different newsroom mindset and product and analytics tools to support the newsroom with decision making. While the motivation to pay is important, the ability of the newsroom to retain a paying subscriber is equally important while building a subscription business," he added.

Sen said that publishers should make audience segmented personalised campaigns. He said, “For instance, if the reader is interested in political stories, and there is a page/tab consisting of only political stories, the publisher can recommend or nudge the reader by saying - ‘for more in-depth stories, subscribe to our political stories’. This will increase conversion on premium content.”


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