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How it is both a make-or-break time for online publishers

India’s digital news publishing is attracting audiences like never before but ad rates fall as advertisers have cut their ad budgets and inventories are running empty. talks to heads of Network18 Digital, HT Digital Streams and Indian Express Digital to understand the change in digital news consumption

India’s digital media growth story was unfolding well till mid-March. Revenues were strong as unique visitors were growing at a steady rate. After the lockdown, the number of unique visitors skyrocketed but advertising has not moved in tandem.

Abhesh Verma

“Revenues have taken a hit everywhere. All businesses are closed and so revenue-wise we are not seeing any uptick. If there is no business, the advertiser will not advertise. Also, people are not coming out. Imagine phone companies that are not doing any launch at this point because people can’t come out and the retail stores are closed,” said Abhesh Verma, CEO, HT Digital Streams.

According to industry experts, ad rates, especially in the programmatic category, have fallen significantly. The rates for Google CPM have gone down owing to more supply than demand.

Ritesh Singh

Ritesh Singh, Co-Founder and Managing Director, #Arm Worldwide, explained, “Planning on biding platforms happens by sorting brands, category, generic, competition & long tail keywords. The CPC (cost per click) rates on brand keywords are anyway low as those are their own keywords, and that has not moved. On category & generic keywords, the CPC has come down. This is true for all self-serve platforms including Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn because of low demand.”

The industry now just hopes that the increased traffic sustains after the lockdown and as it would be beneficial in the long term and the players would be able to charge a higher ad rate.

“The only way this increase is going to help us is that we have more eyeballs; we are seeing people come on board and stay. We have sticky and engaging users. Monetisation-wise nothing has helped. However, we hope people continue to stay. Our intent is also habit formation. This 40-plus day lockdown will cultivate the habits among the consumer,” Verma said.

Puneet Singhvi

Talking about how the ongoing reader growth will help in the long run, Puneet Singhvi. CEO, Digital and President, Corporate Strategy, Network18, said, “We are gaining new audiences who traditionally do not peruse news sites. It’s bringing in a lot of younger audience as the pandemic is impacting everyone and their lifestyles. A lot of this audience is also looking at our positive news coverage and stories and sticking around longer. We anticipate that a significant part of this audience will convert into regular users of our network properties.”

Sanjay Sindhwani

Sanjay Sindhwani, CEO of Indian Express Digital, said in a tweet, “We will overcome the current crisis and will come out stronger.”

The traffic growth for platforms

The overall industry traffic growth has been in the range of 50% to 60%. Video consumption has also skyrocketed for platforms.

Puneet Gupt

Puneet Gupt, COO - Times Internet, said, ”Traffic on our digital platforms has increased significantly, primarily led by users' need for accurate and trustworthy information around the pandemic. At the Times Group, we take this responsibility very seriously and our teams are doubling down in their effort to provide relevant, accurate and timely information around the developing impact of the pandemic on health, safety and economy."

Talking to, Network18’s Singhvi said, “Our digital news platforms have seen very strong growth during the period across general news and business news verticals. Digital along with TV are leading fronts for access to information and updates on an ongoing basis. This is also translating into over a 50% M-o-M growth in the audience on our sites like News18 across languages and on Moneycontrol and CNBCTV18.”

In terms of unique viewers, Network18 Digital is India’s second-largest publisher after Times Internet.

HT’s Verma also said that all three sites of the group (, and have seen significant growth in numbers.

“All our digital platforms have seen growth. We have seen tremendous growth in terms of usage as well, whether it is time spent, engagement, videos watched, content sharing and everything has gone up. In terms of consumption and visits we have seen good growth,” he said.

“On average, we have seen 50-60% growth. However, on some days, we are also seeing 200-300% growth. On Live Hindustan, we saw 20 times growth one of the days. When the lockdown was first announced, that was a big story and when the board results were announced that was another story day. As people stay home, they’re glued to digital platforms,” Verma added.

The Indian Express Group sites are also registering a healthy growth.

Work from home way of working for news operations

The media houses claim they have moved more than 90% of their operations to work from home and employees are putting in extra hours to ensure readers remain updated with authentic information.

Singhvi of TIL said, "As an employer, we have always had progressive work policies that allowed our digital-first journalists to be equipped with the required hardware, software and other resources needed to operate either from home or office. Our news operations are running as usual, with 100% team members contributing daily, working from home and connecting to the required systems as needed."

Sindhwani of Indian Express Digital said that employees across the group sites were putting in more time and efforts to ensure that news operations were running smoothly.

“We are fully functional with 99% of our staff working from home,” he told

HT’s Verma also said that 97% of the employees of all its sites were working from home and additional infrastructure for the same was put in place even before the lockdown started.

“From Day One, we were digital right away. 97% of our operations went online right after the lockdown was announced. Our newspapers are still out and our digital is running on full strength. We already had digital operations ready at the backend, all our VPNs went live, all the cloud services were up and all the laptops were updated with broadband and WiFi,” he said. 

“We are putting in 15-16 hours each day and at different times. Weekends don’t feel like weekends because we are working,” he said.

Network18’s Singhvi said, “We transformed into a work-from-home set-up quickly and ensured proper connectivity and collaboration tools for our teams. We are pretty much at a full strength team running the operations and collaborating effectively. Our content volumes are up, we have been launching updates to products like MC Pro and News18. So it’s actually business as usual for us operationally.”

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