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Innovation in Media: A new chapter

The media industry today is drowning in financial challenges. The way ahead will demand innovation – not only in content but also in methods of generating revenue

The second-largest English paper has pulled its shutters in Kolkata and the largest one has halved itself. Profits in news media have gone down irrevocably. Television news media is increasingly becoming uniform – competing on shouting matches, with depleting field reports and post-truths running amok. For the first time, newsprint has been taxed with 5 per cent GST and the publicity department has delisted most small and medium newspapers from receiving government ads.

Media leaders are in a quest to rediscover themselves. But the issue is not about icons rediscovering their mojos. It is a darker and more complex tale about industry leaders coming to terms with a grim reality. A reality that requires cut-throat changes along with a reassessment of long-held principles.

Revenues have gone down due to GST, demonetisation, Real Estate Regulation Act, decline in businesses of the usual advertisers, crisis in the SME sector, online consumption of news and web entertainment gaining natural grounds without concomitant contribution, newsprint becoming costlier and distribution of television channels tougher and more expensive, among myriad other reasons. There is a hiring freeze on editorial staff in most news platforms, while many long-term employees are being nudged to take up voluntary retirement schemes. In such a context, what may invigorate Indian news media? Crises may be many, but the hunger of news and views of one billion consumers in the country is on the rise.

Innovation

To successfully create and prosper ties, media houses must challenge dogma. Content must be more engaging, cooperative and community-oriented. Moving from neutrality to identity – showing who you are and your perspective.

Second, moving from omnibus to niche. It is possible to create quality journalism of high public value while simultaneously catering to targeted audiences. Hence, sectoral supplements, utilitarian content, busting myths and false news will be needed.

Third, transcending from flock to club: gathering people around news media in clearly defined communities is gaining momentum. Hence, Round Tables, debates, creating loyalty in offices, catching them young in campuses shall be another order. Fourth, moving from ink to sweat: creating physical journalism in the form of public meetings, festivals, events and stage plays. Some media organisations are already reaping the content, network and revenue benefit of high-decibel televised events.

Fifth, moving from speaking to listening: listening to citizens and creating more transparency in editorial matters through direct personal dialogue, physical presence in communities or systematic use of small and big data. Hence, more opinions of others on paper and online than merely those of the reporters and editors, more citizen journalism. Sixth, from being at an arm's length to cooperation: involve the citizens directly throughout the journalistic process: from ideation to research to delivery of independent content to the subsequent debate of published stories.

Seventh, move from own to other platforms: social network technologies have big potential to enhance and deepen engagement. So, enhance social media footprints, not just to put content there but to engage and debate with consumers, who shall then be prosumers (user-generated content producing consumers). Eighth, move from problem to solution: you gain greater impact with an orientation towards finding a solution. Constructive journalism simply creates more engagement among readers, users, viewers.

Finally, move from observers to activists: add new relevance to your readers, users and viewers through activist campaigns or journalistic advocacy.

Media Prescriptions

The tsunami of fake news and post-truths in media seems to be winning but the battle against it has just started and the warriors of factual news are posing an increasingly stronger challenge: through the use of Google reverse image search, TinEye, the free video to jpg converter transforming video into images and InVid. Google and Facebook have started measures to create awareness against false news, to identify and pluck them.

The need for media literacy and a higher net literacy is felt stronger than ever before and media organisations need to have content and programs focussing on creating awareness on the type and method of media to be consumed, and how to identify and avoid fake news.

The need for visionary investors today is immense, especially when technology is often misused, stored and used for specific interests. Social values of technology and data can be harnessed in news initiatives backed by visionary investors.

The news industry revenue is going through a churn like never before. Currently, 38 per cent of total global ad-spending is in the digital medium, which has gained heavily from print which has come down to 9 per cent globally. Television is at 34 per cent, globally, but is on a fast decline. Rest 19 per cent are distributed among radio, outdoor, events and a myriad other channels. Advertising pundits opine that digital will finally stabilise at two-thirds of all ad-spending globally. This makes a strong case for news media to focus on the digital platform.

Not just digital, but mobile will be the new mantra of the news media. Worldwide and in India, consumption of news on mobile and news on the run is galloping ahead with a sharp rise in the use of smartphones. Ability to tell the news in the first one paragraph that fits the mobile handset screen is important.

Journalism that takes a stand will create its own niche audience. Loyalty to such specific brands can be leveraged through a membership drive. New York Times is a good example. Wall Street Journal has developed a membership model with Fox TV and Harper Collins publishing together, benefitting all three.

Legacy media too needs to be innovative to survive. Just in the US, from 1,410 daily newspapers in 2000, it is now 1,286 in 2018. Print news is on the decline but not going away for sure over the next decade or more. But, thinking beyond the known comfort zone would be needed.

Finally, media has traditionally been the gate-keeper and agenda-setting has been a prominent function of every legacy news platform. With multiple options available to each consumer, news media has to creatively be the gate opener which brings newer consumers and the existing ones repeatedly to its doorstep. The big picture of the brand concept of a news media has to be to engage people without them asking for it, and creatively, not obtrusively.

Media Revenue Diversification

For quite some time now, the move from siloistic or a few initiatives platform to convergent multi-media platforms has been the reality for most media enterprises. This is about attempting to be present across offline (publications), online (portal, social media), on air (television, radio), on ground (events), and on mobile (app) platforms. Then, the media group can take its content seamlessly across multiple media platforms, reduce costs and also bring in higher revenue by offering integrated marketing and branding solutions to its advertisers across multiple media. Media convergence always reduces HR costs, real estate costs, news-gathering costs and increases resource efficiency, bringing in more revenue.

Clearly demarcated advertorials, news that you can use, utilitarian content, branded content are sources of revenue each media enterprise can tap upon. Investing in multi-media content providers is essential. Attempts to increase revenues online must be the way forward, integrating video, audio, text and images, for news, views, previews and responses together.

Indeed, the digital news media of tomorrow shall experiment with diverse revenue sources apart from traditional advertising on the web. There is the subscription route, the crowd-funding route, the Paywall route, the events route, social campaigns route, co-subscriptions with non-competing content platforms, customised storytelling for brands, collaborative revenue sharing among media platforms with a similar approach, among others. Each of them is creatively being engaged the world-over.

It is essential to engage people without them asking for it. Digital video can make money. Ads inside digital news can travel across multiple media, as in Buzzfeed and Vice.

Revenue challenge is a reality in news media and can only be met by reducing costs on one side, on traditional news media; and increasing revenue on the other, on digital media. By listening more, engaging with audiences more, using user-generated content more, integrating brand stories creatively in the broad content plan and having utilitarian content along with interesting content, this problem can be tackled.

Content is still the king, but commerce can help it rule longer. So, content-led commerce will be more important going ahead. Today, media houses have to worry about the time and not just competition. Time of the target audience is the one single non-renewable resource that needs to be monetised.

Developing annual packages is a sure shot way to tackle the revenue challenge effectively. Reach and frequency are no more the only currencies for advertisers. They also want to be associated with credible brands or the type of journalism reflected by a specific news enterprise in question.

The story of each media enterprise is unique. You can only suggest a laundry list of revenue diversification but success will vary from platform to platform. The future of journalism is surely in producing content which people are ready to pay for.

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

Ujjwal K Chowdhury

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