Sri Lanka: WNL keeps print profitable, with a focus on digital

Wijeya Newspapers (WNL) was established in 1979 and is Sri Lanka’s leading newspaper group. With a vision to be the most independent and socially responsible media group in the country, it has the highest annual turnover.

by Neha Gupta | October 16, 2018

In this interview, the group’s chairperson Ranjit Wijewardene sheds light on WNL’s revenue sources, advertising solutions and the struggle of transitioning from print to digital.

WAN-IFRAWhat is the state of news media in Sri Lanka, in terms of independence of press and revenue and reach, in print and in other media? 

Ranjit Wijewardene: We are freer than ever before, though governmental dissatisfaction is felt from time to time. The oblique mention of an advertising tax and government advertising is mostly channeled to state-owned publications.

Advertising revenues have dipped slightly as compared to 2016; 2017 showed modest to negative growth. The first two quarters of 2018 have provided revenue growth compared to 2017.

Circulation numbers and print reach have been steady over the last few years and any revenue growth has seen a price increase in the daily and Sunday vernacular publications. Circulation numbers have shown slight drops with some months registering negative growth.

“Digital revenues have shown steady but slow growth rates, while digital reach through the company website/app portfolio and social media has grown exponentially,” –Ranjit Wijewardene, Wijeya Newspapers

What are the companies’ growth figures – digital and print – for 2018, compared to the past few years?WNL growth figures (2015-2018)WNL growth figures (2015-2018)

“WNL offers very powerful advertising solutions across all our brands. The readers and advertisers are served by the network of branches and 5,000 dealer outlets throughout the country” – could you please elaborate on this? 

The main brands within the Wijeya Newspapers portfolio, namely the Daily Mirror, Lankadeepa, Sunday Lankadeepa and the Sunday Times, have a market share in excess of 70% when it comes to readership, reach and revenue generation, compared to its competitors. These brands offer advertisers a powerful advertising platform, which assures value for money.

The Wijeya Newspapers-owned branch network, as well as the 5,000-strong agency network, ensures that the main brands are distributed effectively across the entire island.

WNL is said to be both aggressive and gentle at the same time. What are some of the innovations carried out by Wijeya Newspapers? What drives these initiatives?

The main innovations driven by WNL over the last few years have focused strongly on native advertising and on the design and layout of our print and digital properties.

“We also have a number of ongoing research-led innovation projects into augmented reality (AR), e-paper platforms, development of virtual reality (VR) products, and bots,” –Ranjit Wijewardene, Wijeya Newspapers

Several research projects are carried out at SLIIT, the leading IT University in Sri Lanka. WNL is the only publisher occupying the concept nursery that is attached to the university.

The need to keep print relevant and profitable, while developing new products for print and digital revenue growth, is the primary driver behind these innovations.

“We recently launched W Now, an exclusively video-based news and feature website, where the content is largely disseminated via social media. The precut has been largely successful with an impressive reach and reader interaction. It has also started to generate a significant amount of revenue over the last six months,”

Tell us about your digital journey so far. How many monthly visitors do you register across all your digital channels? Are they increasingly coming from mobile devices?

WNL’s digital journey has shown both readership and revenue growth over the last six years. We currently register 2.5 million unique visitors across all our digital platforms, of which about 35% access our content via smartphones.

How successful are your efforts to capture young readers online, considering that their news consumption habits are not traditional?

Capturing and maintaining a young audience that is increasingly digesting news via social media is a huge challenge. Several of WNL’s activities involving its digital properties and print innovation have been focused on this area.

We believe the young demographic can be attracted by good quality investigative and feature/long form content, along with infographics and videos.

Content that is inherently shareable on social media is the way forward in garnering young readers and keeping them engaged.

Is WNL experimenting with paywalls and subscription-based models? If not, do you plan to start soon?

We are not experimenting with a paywall or subscription-based model now, because we don’t think the Sri Lankan market is ready to start paying for content. We are, however, working on creating a more user-friendly e-paper avenue that will be a paid platform, but our websites will be on an FOC basis for the foreseeable future.

“If we go for a paywall at all, we will go in for a freemium model, where a few premium pieces would be behind the paywall and rest of the content would be free,” –Ranjit Wijewardene, Wijeya Newspapers

What is WNL’s social media strategy in generating revenue and driving page views?

WNL’s social media strategy, until very recently, was mainly to drive traffic to the websites, thereby driving up page views, unique user rates and the average time spent. There was little revenue focus until mid-2017.

We have started utilizing our social media following of over 2.5 million people to start generating revenue by providing advertisers and clients with a platform to disseminate information regarding special offers and events.

WNL started a TV channel recently. What is idea behind this and how has this shaped the objectives of the group?

We recently launched Hi!TV, an extension of the successful Hi magazine, which is the highest circulated magazine in Sri Lanka. Hi!TV is essentially a lifestyle and entertainment channel focused on event coverage in the country.

“The primary objective behind introducing a new channel, apart from creating a new revenue stream, was to venture into electronic media. We did this to be able to offer advertisers packaged 360-degree solutions that would incorporate print, TV, digital and social media,” Ranjit Wijewardene, Wijeya Newspapers

What is your take on the future of news media in the region and your plans for the group?

We do not see a steep decline in print soon, but we do recognize that advertisers are now presented with various forms of advertising options that in some cases would inevitably provide enhanced response rates.

Nonetheless, we believe that print will always prove to be a platform for premium advertising clients and branding opportunities.

“We are also focusing strongly on content, and training our editorial team to keep improving, innovating and experimenting with content production and presentation, to appeal to a younger audience,” –Ranjit Wijewardene, Wijeya Newspapers

Another thrust area to increase page views and average time spent is the vast amount of video content on digital platforms. Video is increasingly becoming a key variable in decision-making about ad agencies and clients.

Our plans for the group are:

  • To increase focus on training the sales team to focus more on native advertising and packaged advertising solutions, incorporating all properties owned by WNL.
  • To train the editorial staff to handle native, infographic, investigative and long form feature content to provide readers with as much unique content as possible.
  • To improve the layout and design of our websites, along with news and content presentation.
  • To continue research and development activities, and further invest to insure that WNL is consistently introducing innovative products and services in the market.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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