Hello, Newspapers: When in doubt, rely on the idea of complementarity.

Several years ago during a business conference, a colleague tossed a simple and very direct question to the CEO. “Considering the growth of digital medium how long newspapers in printed form are going to survive?” he asked. CEO thoughtfully acknowledged the threat and appreciated the concern raised by the colleague and made a prophetic announcement; “yes, newspapers will close down in decades to come but we will be the last to shut shop.” This discussion stayed with me and I often wondered what did the CEO mean when he said- last to close. Most of our concerns about the future of print newspapers are as follows:

  • Fall in readership as millennials are not reading print form of newspapers
  • News consumption on digital platforms has  much faster growth
  • Advertisers are shifting their budgets to digital marketing
  • Online presence of newspapers hardly brings any revenue

Clearly, all players are worried about getting substituted by the digital onslaught and it is reasonable to be concerned. However, let us take a leaf from the industry’s tryst with technology in general. Music consumption was primarily through records and then cassettes and CDs and now in digital format. What did this do to the demand for music? It increased and in different formats including the recent innovation of Carvaan that plays digital music on radio like instrument. When computers came into our lives, papers were to become a thing of the past. Did we get a paper-free office? No, the demand for paper has actually gone up with rising penetration of computers. Therefore, it may not be right to think solely on the basis of substitution. More so in the case of news consumption wherein the exposure to information through multiple platforms could enhance the overall consumer experience. Let me illustrate this with an example: I have been reading The Economic Times, print edition for almost 30 years. For the last 10 years, ET is available on my mobile app and of course as an e-paper on my laptop. My engagement with ET has gone up considerably as the app sets the agenda for my ET reading during the day. At least in my case, I can see the complementarity between ET and ET app and it is working well.  However, ET doesn’t seem to know this for when they launched ET Prime; a subscription-based business content service; it tried to keep the content exclusive to online only.

I have been following a Hindi newspaper and its digital edition and other digital content using the same brand umbrella. This is one of the largest read newspaper and its readers are also consuming content online through newspaper apps and social media handles. The newspaper brand is likely to benefit a lot with more engagement on its online platforms and that engagement could strengthen its relationship with the readers. If a newspaper marketer buys into this principle of complementarity, it would be easier to devise a strategy to operationalize the benefits. For example, consider these:

  • Can the online version of the newspaper be a subscription-based revenue model?
  • Can advertising options be bundled across platforms to measure effectiveness through well-defined metrics?

My argument is for the alignment of print and online versions in a complimentary manner that raises the marketing ROI of advertisers. A wider and deeper engagement with the readers can be achieved through innovative bundling of revenue streams; subscription and advertising included.

Back to my business conference, the question and the answer that we will be the last to close. In that answer, there were two hidden insights; first, it all depends on how do you see the change and second, are you ready to conceptualize and articulate the change in a way that takes into account all the stakeholders and most importantly, the readers. As much as newspapers can uncover the deeper mechanism that is driving this change, they would be better placed to not just survive but thrive in the changing business environment. And, then all players in the market can aim to close last!

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