Nicholas Dawes, Chief Editorial and Content Officer, Hindustan Times Media speaks to Mamun M. Adil about the benefits of integrated newsrooms, and the importance of investing in technology.
MAMUN M. ADIL: Would you agree with the notion that the South Asian market still has a lot of time before digital overtakes print?
NICHOLAS DAWES: I wouldn’t agree with that notion. In India we tend to say “we are like that only,” and things will be different here forever. I think print will have a longer life in South Asia than it will in the West, particularly in the case of the vernacular print in India, where there is growth every quarter. Having said this, there is high growth in vernacular digital as well as people are quickly leapfrogging onto smartphones.Print in the English language is not growing and advertising is shifting to other platforms; my view is that we would be fooling ourselves if we believe we are special. What is special is that unlike the West, we still have a short window of opportunity. We are profitable in print and we will have strong revenue streams for the next few years, and we can use these revenue streams to invest and innovate from a position of strength. In the West publishers had to invest from a position of weakness and fear, and build very resilient digital platforms; if we do that, then we can potentially be very well positioned as the transition accelerates.
MMA: What would be the way to invest?
ND: There are a few things that are crucial for building a successful digital presence and I think they fall into fairly clear buckets. One is that you have to invest in technology; you have to get your platform and product right, invest in skills and engineering in the newsroom, invest in the right people who understand how to put the user first. If you are a big media organisation you have to invest in the technology that powers your platform. Successful digital native companies, such as Fox Media or BuzzFeed or even legacy companies like the Washington Post, are starting to build a very powerful stack of tech capability, which they then can use to quickly spin off new businesses and websites.
“One of the big sins of our journalism across the region is that we tend to drop readers into the middle of the story, without explanation.”
MMA: One of the main benefits of an integrated newsroom is reduced costs. What are the others?
ND: Certainly it is the most cost-efficient and rational way to work, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that your overall costs come down; it means you keep your envelope contained while you innovate and grow. For me, the bigger benefit is related to journalism – we want to expose our print journalists to everything that is happening in the digital conversation; we want to expose them to analytics, to what is happening on social media, we want them to be more responsive and more accountable to their audiences. We also want them to work on an earlier cycle, so that we are able to plan better and manage news better through the day and produce better quality on both platforms. That is why we have changed the first news meeting from 12:30 p.m. to 9:30 a.m. for our senior editors, despite the fact that a lot of journalists almost have it baked into their bodies that you stay up late and get up late. We wanted to get on the front foot, by working and planning early and we are seeing results in our digital traffic, because we are producing stories when people will actually read them, as well as in the quality of our print articles.
MMA: Monetisation remains an issue for publishers, since revenue derived from their online entities does not compensate for the decreasing revenue from their print titles. What are your thoughts on that?
ND: If I said I had the answer to the monetisation problem you should laugh me out of the building. Monetisation is a big problem and I think the only answer that has any credibility at the moment is that we are going to try everything; be it display or native advertising, events or newsletters. One of the biggest challenges is that we have made our users very accustomed to free content – people don’t really pay for their print newspaper in India; if you are spending five or six Indian rupees for a newspaper and recycling it for four, it’s effectively free at the point of consumption.
MMA: Newspapers in Pakistan are relatively more expensive.
ND: Then you have the opportunity to charge for digital content; if you are DAWN, for example, the best newspaper in the country, associated with excellence, then you can look at what the New York Times (NYT) or the Financial Times (FT) have done and say, “listen, you actually have to pay [for content].” And the good thing about this is that it liberates you from purely advertising supported models. The NYT gets more than 50% of its revenue from its readers, as does the FT. This is a very healthy shift, but it takes courage. In India that option is not open to us because newspapers are effectively free.
MMA: How has the orientation of the stories in the Hindustan Times (HT) changed?
ND: I think one of the big sins of our journalism across the region is that we tend to drop readers into the middle of the story, without explanation; we give them a thicket of acronyms to navigate through, and assume that they know everything that is going on. One of the things we have learnt from looking at analytics is that when we give context and explanation online we get massively more traffic and the audience engagement is far, far higher. In print we are trying to at least make sure we have some of the classic elements, like a nut paragraph; we are also using formats like explainers in digital and in print as well. It is early days, so if you pick up an HT, you will not see a radically different paper, but you will see a sharper paper and one with a little more context and explanation. Insights from our analytics [from digital] come to bear on the decision-making when it comes to the stories that make it to the front page of our newspaper the next day, so we have a slightly sharper sense of what stories people care about and what they want to read.
Mamun M. Adil is Manager, Business Development and Research, DAWN.