20 May 2008

Are newspapers ready to embrace Internet values?

Thanks to Exchange4media.com for reproducing this insightful address on the future of newspapers by Pradeep Guha, CEO, Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, at the CEO Conclave of the Indian Newspaper Congress on May 16, 2008, in New Delhi.
It is a truly throught-provoking address. I agree on a lot --though not everything.

I have been invited by exchange4media to be a part of this forum, though I am not quite sure why. If it’s an authority on newspapers they seek, then I can’t claim to be one since I have been out of this industry for a few years now; and if it’s an outsider’s perspective they’re after, then I’ve been in the industry far too long to be objective about it! So, I do hope they know what they’re in for!

Sessions like these, which aim to predict trends in an environment as rapidly changing as ours can be tricky affairs. We barely know what’s going to happen till the horizon. Once the land curves and disappears out of view, what happens next is anyone’s guess and at best, we all play actuaries calculating risks and premiums.

I am not sure if the panellists present here perceive the future of traditional media, particularly newspapers, as a threat or opportunity. In my personal view, I do see a few tangible threats, which, if addressed timely, can be turned into opportunities. This is not to suggest that any one or more of traditional media are likely to become extinct, but the threat, if any, lies in their losing their position of dominance. Hence, being at a CEOs’ panel, I’d like to raise some fundamental, perhaps philosophical questions, which are as pertinent to newspapers as they are to my current medium, television.

Even though more distant a prospect in India than in the rest of the world, the Internet is definitively the medium of the future. How distant a future is difficult to say, as India has seen quite a few instances of dramatic adoption of new technologies by leapfrogging generations. Besides, instead of only being a medium in the race for audience’s time and advertisers’ money, the Internet is becoming a way of life. It has been able to tap some innate human needs (as indeed print had done in the past) and therein lies its success story. If we go back in time, I remember that with the advent and rise of TV, among some of the things that newspapers did was to embrace TV’s core values and yet remain relevant to audiences:

• Introduce colour in generous dollops through the newspaper

• Escalate the entertainment quotient in the newspaper

• Introduce the concept of ‘infotainment’

Today, nobody calls these borrowed values for newspapers; they are intrinsic to the medium. Similarly, if we are to remain relevant to our audience in this century, then it would serve us well to identify the core value propositions of the medium of the future, viz., the Internet, and try and integrate them into our traditional media as well.

While media convergence is a much-used term, I think it has the furthest to go in actuality when it comes to the realm of papers. By definition, convergence is when multiple products come together to form one product with the advantage of all of them. This requires that each product loses its identity to an extent to be able to merge with the whole idea. However, for newspapers, the very fear of losing their identity is keeping them from truly converging to form a single information and connection utility. Thus, even as it pays lip-service to convergence in the name of citizen journalism, online editions, e-papers, SMS interactivity, etc., all of these remain strictly satellite to the core paper, both to the consumer as well as internally in terms of corporate priorities. And this core-satellite bifurcation leads to the increasing uncertainty about the future of newspapers. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum so to speak.

So what are these core values?

From a consumer perspective:

A. Two-way exchange

As urbanisation increases, the individual identity gets shrunk. Add to that, increasing self-awareness and introspection which is a fallout of 20th century philosophical thinking, viz., existentialism, and loneliness and isolation are perceptibly on the rise. The more anonymous he/she gets, the more he/she wants to reach out to others, be seen, be heard, be understood, and establish their self as an individual. What the Internet has done is identified this need for two-way communication that cuts across physical barriers and connects people. Be it blogs, chatrooms or social networking sites, the essence of the Internet is two-way communication. Even while fulfilling purely information-oriented needs, the Internet gives the option for immediate action, be it feedback (news/service sites), purchase (e-commerce) or update (online encyclopaedias like wikipedia).

That is the biggest challenge for many media like newspapers and television. Television content has identified this human need to reach out and be seen and heard, in the form of reality shows. While common sense might say that who would want to go up in front of millions of people and make an ass of themselves, the overarching need to be seen and heard has resulted in the phenomenal success of shows like ‘Big Brother’, ‘Weakest Link’, or our own ‘Sa Re Ga Ma Pa’.

Television has a greater scope for this two-way exchange with the promise of full digitalisation, but for newspapers the challenge is still considerable. Maybe the real watershed as always will come with a tectonic shift in technology (as with TV it’s the set-top box). As I was reading the other day, maybe the paper-thin videoscreen of ‘Minority Report’ will become a reality one day.

B. Integrated Chain of Consumer Needs

The beauty of the Internet lies in the fact that it approaches the individual as a whole rather than a sum of his/her parts. Therefore, it occupies every step of the ladder of human needs from identification / creation of needs (SEOs, recommendations) to information to fulfilment of the same. In contrast, newspapers still identify with and fulfil only the knowledge / infotainment need. Any effort towards the remaining is at best ad hoc. For instance, I would love to read a review of a new movie, be able to call and purchase tickets to view it at the nearest theatre, get recommendations of movies from the same actor/director or buy/hire DVDs from the same source, a sort of NYTimes-meets-Ticketmaster-meets-Amazon/Blockbuster if you will. Today’s audience is pressed for time, and if he has to go to multiple places to fulfil various parts of the same need, he/she will be distracted and dissatisfied at each level.

As stated in the recent Newspaper Next 2.0 Report by the American Press Institute, the newspaper needs to evolve from a mere news and information source to a comprehensive local information and connection utility, viz., “Help me know or do whatever it takes to live here.”

• Help me make good spending decisions

• Help me connect, talk and share with others

• Help me find/choose things to do

• Help me get answers about this place

• Help me know last-minute changes

That’s as far as the consumer is concerned. The Internet has also understood and integrated some core advertiser needs.

A. Integrated Chain of Advertiser Needs

On the business side too, newspapers need to grow out of the mere print ad/print plus online ad model and help their advertisers “connect with anyone who lives here”.

• Help me reach exactly the type of consumer I need to reach

• Help me get considered when a customer is about to make a choice

• Help me show people the quality of my product/service/user experience

• Help me build and maintain customer loyalty

• Help me create one-to-one relationship with customers

• Help me monetise my customer list

Aren’t these some of the things advertisers are asking us already?

B. Return on Investment

As advertising and marketing costs go up, media gets more and more fragmented, and expectation on returns hits the roof, the mere promise of an intangible brand value is not enough for advertisers. Indeed, a lot of media buying in companies are today done by purchase managers and not marketers! And they need that intangible brand value converted into actual sales to be able to measure this conversion. While Internet leads the pack here with accurately measurable and as of now profitable ROIs, television is able to do this to some extent along with its quick turnaround time on research and ratings – weekly and now even daily! However, print as an industry is still languishing in the era of bi-annual research data and no real ROI measure. As advertising cost is going up, its effectiveness is increasingly being called into question. Since most leading research companies have their origins in the western world where newspapers are generally in decline, there is no real impetus for any of these agencies to invent new research models for newspaper readership research. However, being one of the few countries in the world where print media is on an upsurge, maybe its time for Indian newspaper companies to take the lead and invest time and money to build models that can provide to its advertisers readership data that is real-time or near real-time.

These are just some of the questions that come to my mind when I think of the medium I spent most of my life in.

Thank you.


Stephanie Inglis said...

Great post! I think media outlets can learn a lot from each other. In fact, I’m willing to argue that online media can also learn a lot from print media, especially in terms of accountability. Newspapers and magazines undergo rigorous, third-party media audits to ensure that reported circulation data is accurate. You can imagine how this helps advertisers in marketing to a specific audience. As of now, the Internet has no such accountability. Media buyers have to take the site owner’s word for it that websites reach the right people. www.buysafemedia.com is a website we’ve been working on to emphasize the value of media auditing. The site focuses on print but I think the principle relates to all media. Do you think we’ll be able to do this online in the future?

Madhavan said...

Thanks, Stephanie. I am all for independent audits. Maybe will write a post on it soon. However, I could not enough info on your site.

Stephanie Inglis said...

I would love to read it! The www.buymedia.com site was a microsite on behalf of all media auditors to raise awareness about print auditing. For more in-depth info, you could try http://bpaww.com or http://www.accessabc.com/, the two leading global media auditing companies.

Stephanie Inglis said...

Hi Madhaven,

I just remembered that you mentioned possibly writing an article on media auditing. If you need any more info, you can contact me at buysafemediasm@gmail.com and I'll be happy to provide you with all the details you need about media auditing or the Buy Safe Media campaign. Talk soon!