Mastering the new media algorithm: Indian media at crossroads
Twenty years ago, a little-known website in the United States ran a story that the traditional media had ignored (and in the case of one magazine, killed minutes before publication). That blockbuster story had broken in January 1998 and had a massive impact on journalism as we knew it then.(For more on that story here: https://goo.gl/uL336H)
Wading into the matter with the headline “scandalous scoop breaks online”, the BBC added, “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern: 23-Year-Old, Sex Relationship with President" screamed a Saturday-night headline on the infamous Internet tip sheet, the Drudge Report.” (For more on that story here: https://goo.gl/v381kN)
Today, that “tip sheet” www.drudgereport.com reaches close to 13 million people every month in the US and its founder Matt Drudge has been called the Walter Cronkite of his era.
For years now, the media industry in India has been waiting for a similar moment – that one turning point from where digital would seriously challenge traditional platforms and gain heft - from a subscriber and revenue point of view.
Multiple standalone platforms as well as the digital avatars of traditional players have been hard at work. The number of digital platforms mirror the diversity of India and aim to cater to a fast-evolving consumer. There are question marks on the content strategies and whether they will be commercially viable in the long run. Not many answers are available – although managers believe a growing economy and the shift in media consumption would make digital news viable as a business.
A recent study on the “Indian news media and the production of news in the age of social discovery” funded by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) throws some light on the social media strategies of six leading English-language Indian news organisations. The study (https://goo.gl/XRdk7A) points out that most Indian media organisations do not charge for digital news and that the friction that exists around payment and subscriptions in some markets is absent in India. An interesting finding is that “Facebook is the most important social media platform for all the organisations covered, in part because of its very large user base, but also because the company has collaborated actively with a number of Indian publishers”.
There is another interesting and somewhat provocatively titled report – “how to gobble up Indian media” - in the January 22 issue of the Outlook magazine. This report claims that the Google search engine is now the second largest media company in terms of revenue and may overtake the Times of India group soon. “It doesn’t spend a paisa gathering news or pay for others content, but it dictates digital ads and rates. The taxmen too are fighting for their dues”. (For more on that https://goo.gl/vbBtsv).
There is yet another interesting trend revealed by the latest Indian Readership Survey 2017 (released after a gap of nearly four years this January). The survey says total readership of Indian newspapers has grown by 40 per cent adding nearly 110 million new readers, while magazines have added nearly 38 million new readers. These numbers are not to be scoffed at and fly in the face of conventional wisdom on the Indian print media.
The news television genre is also growing in the country. The Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) says the total number of channels stood at 163 in 2017, an addition of 21 new channels during the year. News bulletins account for a majority share of the entire content consumed on news channels, with regional language channels accounting for a dominant share of viewership. Clearly, while Indian television suffers from some amount of over competition, it is growing as a format across the country.
While it is hard to draw definitive conclusions on the prospects of digital news – both from a content provision and consumer access perspective – the segment is growing at a rapid clip. Diversified and fragmented it may be – but it is growing across languages and geographies. However, the growth is skewed in a manner that could be of grave concern to our home-grown media.
As R. Jagannathan writes in the Outlook (https://goo.gl/uUzdtR) - “it is probably clear to most Indian media companies that their nemesis is not a rival newspaper, TV channel or website, but tech’s T-Rexes. More specifically, Google and Facebook. The latter two call themselves technology companies, but they are feeding.”
The conundrum facing traditional media is perhaps this: technology has enabled the consumer with a far wider choice of content, available mostly free (barring the data charges paid to the telecom service provider) and through simple, highly interactive, on-the-go interfaces. The technology underpinning this new pattern of media consumption is not in the hands of the publishers. It is algorithms that determine reach and these highly complex codes are written by engineers and not wordsmiths.
It is tempting to say that traditional media will successfully navigate this new world and be able to seize the digital dividend. However, as the recent experience in India suggests, this may be easier said than done. In fact, as the RISJ study points out, “the prospect of building towards one billion social media followers is perhaps beguiling, but dumb scale is a vanity game and not one that will work long term”.
While original content creators, including specialist platforms, will continue to remain in demand – the power of these new tech interfaces means consumers want a personalised, interactive experience that most traditional platforms cannot deliver. While a start-up online media platform may find very low entry barriers, existing operations find ‘going digital’ a significant challenge that entails massive retooling of employee skillsets, even before monetisation starts or reaches a respectable size.
The key issue that Indian media publishers across print, television and digital face today is of technology and its impact on consumer preferences. “Digital” media technologies have been developed by a few companies, who have created giant online platforms that aggregate content from all possible sources. An enormous amount of traffic is concentrated on these platforms – and publishers are dependent on them.
Delve into the recent changes by Facebook to its newsfeed algorithm and it becomes clear that even minor tweaks on this gigantic platform can impact publishers. (For more, read: https://goo.gl/BKxtWr)
The bottom line is that Indian media needs to take note of these changes and invest in technology, reskilling of teams.