Why digital news start-ups continue to struggle with monetisation

Despite alternative revenue models, independent digital news start-ups continue to struggle with monetisation.

Why digital news start-ups continue to struggle with monetisation
According to a FICCI-EY 2019 report, less than 0.25% of total online news consumers were paid subscribers in 2018

By Sonam Saini

For independent news media companies vying for a sliver of digital advertising monies, while operating in the shadow of news websites from legacy news corporations such as BCCL, Network 18 and NDTV, the struggle is real. Less than a month ago, five-year-old news website Scroll laid off at least 16 of its 40 employees citing “economic conditions” of the company. This despite creating several revenue streams including an in-house brand studio, programmatic ads, subscriptions and licensed shows for OTT and TV platforms.

The inability to rake in substantial revenues has forced even global companies like BuzzFeed, Vice Media and HuffPost to opt for leaner teams in India, which means job cuts.

Show me the money

Although independent news platforms, that promised reportage going beyond the conventional news coverage by mainstream media platforms, have earned a niche following, their popularity among advertisers is still low.

The News Minute is a South-based digital news platform run by a team of 40. Vignesh Vellore, its co-founder and CEO, says that while the entry barrier on digital is low, “it is hard to build a sustainable business and operate at the scale of legacy media organisations”. Therefore, most of these websites function like start-ups, keeping the headcount in check.

In an attempt to maintain their value proposition of delivering unbiased news, many independent websites refrain from plastering their webpages with display advertising. Some like ScoopWhoop have, instead, turned to branded content. “The publishing business has challenges in terms of revenue and scaling up. Therefore, we focus on creating brand-friendly properties,” says Meghana Bhat, CMO, ScoopWhoop. The platform has also started producing shows for OTT platforms as a secondary revenue stream.

However, counting on native advertising alone could be counterintuitive in the long run for news websites. “Unfortunately, native advertising is neither scalable nor is it able to bring in enough revenues to sustain the business. This has led to an increased dependence on display ads,” Vellore informs. The News Minute relies on programmatic advertising, which contributes 50-60% to the company’s revenue, apart from other avenues such as direct sales, offline events and native advertising.

As per Alexa Rankings, time spent on news websites like The Wire, The News Minute and Scroll is around 2.40 minutes per user, whereas double that time is spent on websites under established news networks. Between Times Internet’s 450 million daily active users and The News Minute’s just over 10 million monthly active users, it is not a tough choice for advertisers.

The ones that do prefer these platforms, according to digital media planners, are those who appreciate their loyal reader base. “Advertisers use these platforms to strike a conversation with niche audiences, who rely on the content published on these sites, to build brand awareness and affinity, and then drive brand impact,” says Neena Dasgupta, CEO and director, Zirca Digital Solutions.

Subscription woes

Generating subscription revenues is also a challenge for these sites. “Unless they produce exclusive pieces, and not just publish general news, subscription is harder to obtain,” notes Jehil Thakkar, head, media and entertainment, and partner, Deloitte.

In 2018, several media companies including Times Internet, The Hindu, HT Mint and TV18 launched subscription products; but none of them have seen a significant uptake. According to a FICCI-EY 2019 report, less than 0.25% of total online news consumers were paid subscribers in 2018, and a viable subscription model will require at least 10-20% of the current subscribers to turn pay.

Only a handful of sites have been able to crack the subscription model. The Ken, a digital publication focussing on in-depth reportage, is fully subscription led. Meanwhile, some of Newslaundry’s content is accessible only through subscription.

“In the long run, subscription is going to be our primary revenue stream, followed by offline events and news partnerships,” says Abhinandan Sekhri, CEO, Newslaundry, which attracts 70% of its revenue from subscriptions. The platform had a partnership with ScoopWhoop in the past for a documentary, and has an ongoing partnership with France 24, among others.

Other platforms such as Scroll, The Wire and The Quint invite readers to support their brand of journalism by making monetary contributions. None of these sites put their content behind a paywall; instead, they offer subscribers access to special features.

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