In India, planning for continued print growth and digital disruption

The Hindu Group finds itself in a rare situation: prudent expansion of its legacy products must be managed in parallel with the explosive, disruptive growth of digital. Rajiv C. Lochan, CEO of the group’s holding company, describes the importance of keeping the reader at the center of considerations.

by WAN-IFRA Staff | September 14, 2016

WAN-IFRA: A mobile-first future is the trend we see and hear everywhere. While the trend across Asia shows time spent on news media has increased, the time spent on print is declining. How do you see this trend developing and affecting news media companies’ strategies in the short term and long term, especially in India?

Rajiv C. Lochan, Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer, Kasturi & Sons Ltd: Digital disruption is a consumer-driven reality. Therefore, it is most appropriate to respond to it in a consumer-centric manner. Print, website, mobile, etc. are all form factors that the reader chooses to use and if, as media companies, we begin to see our primary responsibility towards the consumer (as opposed to the form factor), we will handle this reality quite pragmatically (and commercially successfully as well).

Our focus at The Hindu Group is to prepare ourselves and adapt rapidly to the changes implied by the digital disruption – not merely to our digital offerings, but to the entire reader experience. And we are finding that print is a formidable force of influence amongst readers! I expect this to be the case in the short term and in the long term.

Media companies have cut their capital spending in the last two years, especially spending related to new or upgraded print capabilities. How should newspapers approach their investment strategies in this regard, if indeed print consumption continues to decline? Where do you think key investments should be made?

Print media companies that are seeing declines will have to handle the capital investments sensibly. Our experience is quite at odds with the seemingly popular rhetoric of “print is dying.”

We are logging strong double-digit growth in our circulation, well ahead of where the industry appears to be. Consequently, we are prudently investing in both capacity and capability of our printing facilities.

As a general rule, investments need to be made where one sees meaningful returns that shareholders and investors expect from those investments. The same rule applies to our industry too.

Print media are still growing in India, quite opposite to the trend in Western countries. This growth is reportedly coming from new geographic areas, mostly suburban and rural. But traditionally, newspapers, especially English-language newspapers, have relied on readers in the cities, who supposedly have more spending power. Is this growth in print media in India contributing to the health of the organisation?

There are many myths here:

  1. growth in only semi-urban/rural,
  2. reader in cities have more spending power, and
  3. new geographies drive growth, etc.

That may be the case in some markets, but certainly our experience in India is that growth is available pretty much wherever one chooses to focus. India is an economy that has grown, and will continue to grow, limited only by supply. The same applies to the newspaper industry.

Our approach has been to focus on the readers we serve and cater to their needs as best as possible. In doing so, we aim to strike a good balance between all stakeholders – readers, advertisers, employees, agents (both advertising and distribution), newsprint suppliers, etc. As the ecosystem thrives, we are confident that our organisation will remain healthy.

The Hindu is known for its traditional (and slightly highbrow) style of reporting, and generations have grown up reading the paper. What is The Hindu doing to address the changing needs of readers, especially those of younger readers?

Basic needs of readers are not dramatically different, especially their expectations of our publications. They expect us to inform them credibly, reliably, and in a manner that appeals to them. We have a long history and reputation of not only shaping public opinion but also reflecting public opinion and in a manner that is our competitors’ envy.

Our approach to the shifts in reader preferences has been to understand their needs and do our best to adapt ourselves to serve those needs as best as possible. That requires changes in our editorial processes, in our technological capabilities and in our approach to understanding the readers’ needs across markets and demographic sub-segments. For example, we are the only publication that publishes a toll-free number for feedback and inputs, and we receive thousands of calls from our discerning readers.

Is social media friend or foe for journalism? Or more like a “frenemy”? What is your take on this?

Social media is simply another way in which readers communicate with us and with one another. The feedback is almost instantaneous and the feedback is pervasive, meaning every single reader is now able to express their voice.

Instead of judging social media as a “friend” or a “foe,” my bias is to view this as an important source of calibrating the prevalent views, opinions, and most importantly, needs of readers and adapt our offerings to best reflect our own philosophy and principles as well as these ever-changing demands of readers.

Please tell us your views on distributed platforms. On one side there is a legitimate fear of loss of control of your content and brand, particularly when algorithmic changes by technology companies always loom. Yet increasingly these platforms are where the audience is consuming news. What’s The Hindu’s approach?

I see these platforms as sources to amplify our reach and relevance. Loss of control of content and brand are risks of being in public service, so at worst, these platforms compound that risk, but by no means are these platforms sources of those risks. Our approach is to take advantage of the amplification that these platforms provide while fiercely adhering to our editorial and business values that form the underpinning of our reputation. As long as we don’t betray our readers and don’t allow these platforms to betray our readers, we feel there is enormous benefit to our readers in consuming (and sharing) our news, views, opinions and analyses even more.

The Hindu has experimented with many new products: a youth paper distributed in the IT corridor of Chennai, a Metro TV station, and more recently The Hindu Tamil. What is the strategy behind these launches, and what can you tell us about The Hindu Tamil experience so far?

We have a long history of adapting and innovating despite a perception of being traditional and conservative. Our past forays reflect this. The Hindu Tamil was launched three years ago and is the fastest-growing and most admired Tamil daily today. The editorial quality draws from our long tradition of excellence and objectivity. And we are fortunate that readers have embraced this offering with open hands. We are witnessing scorching growth across all parameters.

While digital is growing, it is not yet contributing to the top line of media companies. But it is believed as more and more audiences come into digital, it could pay off eventually. How long do you see such a transition panning out in India? How is The Hindu preparing to face this challenge of revenue in digital?

Digital is here to stay! Sadly, as far as news is concerned, all digital revenues (almost entirely advertising-based) are hogged by “intermediaries” who don’t really create any content, but have the eyeballs that seek content. Content creators, on the other hand, seem to quite happily give away their content for free, particularly news content. In such a context, it is not surprising that digital is not contributing to the top line of media companies. If this trend continues, then I see a very long and potentially expensive transition. Perhaps transition would then be the wrong characterisation…it would become the new normal.

At The Hindu Group, we are pursuing a strategy that taps a diversified stream of revenue sources across various needs of our readers – politics, business, sports, education, entertainment, etc.

Our core belief is that by delivering high-quality content that the reader really wants in a manner that the reader really enjoys, we will be able to tap revenue streams from a range of stakeholders. This, in our view, is the way to ensure digital materiality.

What are some of The Hindu’s top digital priorities?

Our digital priorities are driven by a sharp focus on reader requirements combined with our ability to deliver those requirements. Where we see a strong match, we will put together content with our traditional focus on quality, and where don’t see a match, we will prefer to stay away from attempting to serve those requirements. For example, we have launched, arguably India’s premier multi-sport destination of quality. Being informed on trends, updates and more importantly, analysis and commentary on sports is a major reader need and we have a long, proven track record of delivering high-quality content through our iconic Sportstar magazine! In the six months since launch, we have seen a dramatic growth in unique users, page views, engagement, etc.

There are over a dozen such spaces we have identified where we will strive to bring high-quality content to chosen sub-segments of readers in a compelling manner!

Generally speaking, how do you see the industry moving forward in the next five years? And how will this fit into the plans of The Hindu?

I am quite optimistic about India’s economic growth over the next five years. Several sectors, especially in the consumer-facing world, are going to be seeing significant growth, and simultaneously, both physical infrastructure and technological/communication infrastructure will continue to leapfrog. Combine this with an increasingly younger population, and we have the makings of explosive economic growth. The only limiting factor so far has been policy support, and hopefully that will be addressed.

As the economy takes off, the need for citizens in a well-thriving democracy is to be well-informed and frankly, this is our group’s distinctive strength. There is very little doubt in my mind that if we stick to the “simplest, least devious path” – i.e., obsessing about our readers, adapting boldly as we have so many times in the past, and focusing on the welfare of our employees, partners and other stakeholders – continued prosperity is a natural consequence.

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