Category Archives: Media

Customer Acquisition In Online Media: The Newsletter

Over the past year or so I have switched to consuming a lot of content on email. Well, to be precise, email newsletters. The poor little newsletter has, for long, been consigned as a necessary relic, especially in news organizations and content publications. This started during pre-post-PC era (I know it sounds funny and it is intentional) when mobiles were still primarily voice (than data) devices, RSS aggregators were for niche audience and much of content consumption started at the primary gateway of a publication’s homepage.

Newsletters, at that point in time, added little value to homepage-centric consumption pattern. Moreover, they were seen first as places to sell advertising inventory if you had huge subscription numbers, as an add-on to the primary ad slots on the website. Something like a buy-two-get-one-free kind of deal, a sweetener that cost the publisher nothing much and made the advertiser feel good. Since email-on-mobile was still not a widespread phenomenon, majority of consumers used to access their email on their laptops or desktops, limiting the visibility and utility of the newsletters.

Enter Data On The Move

The switch-over of handheld devices to becoming primarily data devices (that could also handle telephony) has been a game changer for every industry. I prefer to look at this change in the nature of the devices as a better distinction regarding the various eras in computing, than as a pre/post PC thing. The mobile phone, for a large chunk of its life, was a device that handled telephony and telephony-related functions. The switch-over turned them into generic computing devices that could handle wireless data natively and efficiently, while delegating functions related to telephony as one of the many applications that the device could run.

Death Of Branding And Context

This development dovetailed nicely with the emergence of social networks, whereby content was suddenly stripped of the context and branding at the point of origin. In the pre-social/mobile world, a consumer’s path to a particular piece of content was clearly defined. For example, this would mean (more often than not) I would know that I am reading an opinion piece on a particular publication because I went seeking out something specific to read on that publication’s website.

The main contexts for me in that example are 1) a publication that I like to read 2) a section/topic that is of interest to me and 3) a visual representation (design etc.) that is familiar to me. Part of the reason why some content properties can command a premium in advertising rates is because of this degree of certainty that is provided about the context for their audience. The emergence of social and omnipresent data has decimated this certainty.

The growth curve of Facebook and Twitter (and other niche social properties) is captured best in the referral section of the audience numbers for content websites. Save the gated and private networks, the top sources of traffic for almost every site now is social at top with organic search and direct traffic below it. Contrast this with the pre-social era where direct was the primary driver of traffic, followed by organic search.

Even within social there is no predictable path that is possible. The publication’s own pages on the platforms may drive the the traffic. The traffic may come from a much-followed curator’s page. It may lead from a link going viral, which means tens and thousands of pages may be generating that traffic.

Why Email Newsletters?

The greatest downside for content websites of these developments in social and mobile is that they no longer have a constant engagement with their audience, as represented by direct traffic. And it is only going to drop further as the volume and ability to publish more content ramps up, driving more people into the hands of social and content aggregators. The resulting loss or alteration of context (ranging from appreciation, to ridicule and a variety of other not-so-nice things) also impacts advertising options, which in-turn negatively impacts viability of the business itself in the long run.

This is where the humble newsletter becomes a key factor. One application that has weathered all this data and social onslaught is the old school thing called email. Strangely, email has wound up being an off-app notification aggregator of sorts; emerging as a high-engagement app of its own. And unlike the earlier times when email was accessed a lot over browsers in laptops and PCs, it is heavily used in mobile devices. Some of the key numbers regarding use of email on mobiles read like this.

  • Daily we spend 9 minutes on email via a mobile device, that is 7,6% of the total 119 minutes we use our phone per day. O2 – “Mobile life report” UK (2013)
  • Mobile email opens have grown with 21% in 2013, from 43% in Jan to 51% in December. Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)
  • More email is read Mobile than on a desktop email client. Stats say 51% of email is now opened on a mobile device Litmus –”Email Analytics” (Jan 2014)

You can read more of those stats in this excellent post on EmailMonday. And these are numbers that should make every content producer sit up and take notice.

It is not that nobody is taking email seriously. As pointed out by Nikhil in a recent offline conversation, it is a good source of revenue for some of the trade publications. Similarly, e-commerce sites make extensive use of email as a sales funnel. The former is more a fire hose approach, while the latter — e-commerce — has many years of evolution in both methodology and technology that enables them to segment and target customers effectively for acquisition and retention. There is no such thing that is present with the content domain.

What Should Publications Do?

Firstly, they should consider the audience as customers of a product they are selling. The product here is content, which has a tiny ticket size compared to other (especially transaction-oriented) businesses. The desired outcomes here are a) acquisition b) retention and longer term engagement c) transaction. For content plays, the juicy bit are in (b) as (a) is too volatile a number to reliably build anything on. (c) is also a hard one for most as the options are limited to subscriptions, affiliate models or events.

Secondly, they need to have clear-cut retention strategies for the difference audience segments. Presenting the same recommended articles or email sign up forms for all first time users is not the smartest way to go about retaining a horde of new visitors from a link that has gone viral. I can bet my bottom dollar on the assertion that only a tiny percentage of content publishers anywhere will have a handle on conversion percentages from the last viral spike they experienced. This is unacceptable situation if survival is key for you.

This is also the place where email finds a lot value in building an engaged audience where the publisher has at least some modicum of control over the context. But, to get started on that path, publishers have to both market and put together their mailers better. While the automated solutions like Feedblitz are easy to integrate, they also generate incredibly big blind spots. While email can work as a high-engagement platform, it can also quickly wind up in the death folder (spam) or remain unread if you don’t make the best of the tiny window of opportunity a consumer gives you.

It is vital to recognize that the email context is different from anything else. As a result, you have to re-purpose content for it. In the email app, you are not looking for a quick fix. Other than spam, every email in that item already has an established relationship with the reader. It is the publisher’s responsibility to leverage that relationship and trust to meet the aforementioned objectives.

Lastly, it is important to understand the numbers. What are the open rates and referrals from your email campaigns? What is the bounce rate from the email like? Which form factor represents the largest consumption percentage? Is your email layout responsive?

All the points only touch the surface of a good email strategy for publications. While I hope that most publishers already have in place a strategy that covers all this and more, the reality is that most would struggle to answer even basic questions regarding their email strategy. Even so, right now is a good time to start work on it and leverage a tool that allows for persistent engagement, in a world where prolonged engagement is nearly impossible to find.

About The Imminent Online Future Of Indian Media

NYT’s India Ink takes a swipe at that contentious topic of the future of media in India, seen through the eyes of an emerging online media scene in India. The post covers interesting aspects of the problem and is well worth a read, but it also misses a few key points.

For one, niche, experimental new media websites are hardly a new thing in India. In some ways, we have been ahead of even the western markets on that front. There used to be this fantastic (but way too costly to run) product called The Newspaper Today from the India Today Group and the first incarnation Tehelka was another of these experiments. Now, if you consider that, both were products from the 2000 – 2003 period, you will realize that our experiments in the space go that long back.

I was involved with both products for very short periods of time early in my career and I went on to work at digital operations of many other media companies after that. The idea that good content, somehow, will change the game was a popularly held misconception then and it remains the same even now and someone is bound to revisit that theme every couple of years, only to go home pretty singed by the whole experience.

Secondly, it is not the quality, but the cost that makes the proposition rather untenable in India. It costs way too much to create even less-than-average content here (points tackled in a bit more detail in an earlier post here), creating good quality content, on the lines of a daily, is even harder and costlier. The concept has been a first love of sorts for me, since content and journalism is where I started my career, and every now and then I wonder if I should try doing a venture there. By the time I am done with even the most basic financial models on it, the stark reality always holds me back.

Thirdly, the myth of the booming class of novueau-riche Indians who are dying for quality English content is something that is created by people like me who want to read more of this type of content and imagine ourselves as a growing tribe. Let me break it to everyone, we are not a growing tribe. We are a vocal, somewhat visible group given to group-think and internal amplification like any other group. Unfortunately, the group is so tiny that most niche online publications in India consider even half-a-million page views in a month as an excellent month.

Lastly, it is not impossible to have a growing, scaleable online content business in India. It will be in a non-English language, with content that probably won’t appeal to the upper class and it will need the backing of some really good investors who are patient enough to put money into a team and a business that will take 3-5 years to bootstrap properly.

P.S: Ironically, one of the people interviewed in the post, P V Sahad of VCCircle, was a colleague at The Newspaper Today. He’s one of the smarter guys in the business who realized early enough in the game that there is no money in doing content if you want to do a lot of it.

On The Content Business

Fair disclosure: I have no idea why Jeff Bezos bought WaPo. You won’t find much about that in this post. This is going to be a rambling, ill-focused post.

Much of the discussion around the content business eventually comes around to the question of paywalls and subscriptions. I feel this is the wrong approach to trying to find a future for an industry that always has had a key role to play in the society. The business of content has not been supported by subscriptions for a long time and that has been the case even before the internet became as big as it is right now.

The scale that the bigger content businesses achieved during their glory days was not because the consumers of the content were paying a price that was close to what it took to produce that piece of content. The scale was there because of the advertising the content producers could bring in. The majority of the damage has happened on that front and trying to repair that damage by getting subscriptions to cover for it is bound to fail.

The business of content is really quite simple:

What do you publish?

How is it consumed?

Who gets to consume what is published.

The three factors together makes a publication a platform play for advertising. Yes, subscriptions are there, but they only make for a bit of nice loose change in the larger picture.

A hypothetical publication, if it attempts to explain its business of content may wind up looking like this:

What do you publish: A weekly magazine on automobiles.

How is it consumed: Print and internet.

Who gets to consume it: 20-45 year-old, 80% male, from the top three metros in the country.

Where internet has been destroying the old content business is in identifying the ‘who gets to consume it’ part of the business. You are not going to make up for the losses on that front by trying to fix the subscriptions part of the business. That horse bolted long long ago and the fact is that, as a large publication, you can’t hope to survive and revive based on how you can charge your subscribers more.

The key question is: how can you deliver a better audience for your advertisers, without compromising the quality of what you publish? There seems to be little effort being put into addressing that crucial question. Audiences these days, like good content, need to be curated and nurtured.

It won’t, though, be an easy thing to do as traditional advertising is used to picking quantity over quality and a historical lack of instrumentation in the industry has allowed them to get away with this. So, even the newer products and models are essentially reinventing the older flawed way of doing things and a way forward that is different seems to be nowhere in sight.

Review Of Prismatic

Wavii and Prismatic are two of the latest warriors in the perilous battlefield of automated social content discovery and recommendations and over the past few weeks I have grown quite fond of using Prismatic. The domain of automated content discovery has seen much money and effort invested into it with companies like Evri/Twine, SocialMedian, Summify either shutting down or being acquired into larger products to be integrated as smaller features or as talent acquisitions. So it is surprising to see even more resources being plonked into a domain that has repeatedly proven to be either plumbing with no real scope as a consumer-facing business.

One reason why this is happening is because nobody has successfully cracked this space, exposing the underlying technology in the form of a useful, simple service than as something which is inherently nerdy in nature. Recommendation engines that work on unstructured text requires a mixture of content crawling, classification and content clustering to make it work right. Each of those three aspects are hard to crack by themselves, requiring a lot more than just your average web development chops. Together, they are an unattainable holy trinity. There is a good reason why so many companies and smart people have failed at it. That is also one of the best reason to have a go at it again.

Then there is the aspect of the RSS readers — another domain that has seen many a brave product, person and purse eventually call it quits, with not a single big product from five-years-ago being alive in 2013. You can, justifiably, argue Google Reader is still alive in somewhat a whittled down form, but even in its heyday the product could not grow into the mainstream. RSS is inherently plumbing for the connected web. It is not meant to be consumed by humans. Yet, the entire workflow around using RSS was built around human intervention. There is a good reason why it never took off.

Why I like Prismatic a lot is because it excels at executing the holy trinity really well. The on-boarding is ridiculously simple – you hook up your Twitter account (in my case, since I am not on Facebook) and it figures out a list of things you like based on your profile. It presents you with a list of links to read right when you log in. There is no “hey, check in 10-hours later when we’d have crawled content for you” in their case. For a non-technical audience this is crucial. Even more crucial is the fact that you need to curate anything at all, it figures out what you like by tracking what you clicked/opened.

Comparatively, Wavii is a more nerdy experience. The on-boarding is nowhere close to being as polished as Prismatic and even after a while on the service it leaves me quite confused. Consumer-facing applications cannot afford to appear convoluted and complicated, especially in the iOS era. Wavii is much more an alpha/beta a product than Prismatic, but that is understandable as Prismatic is better capitalized and has been around for quite a while with some top-notch talent trying to solve the hard problems associated with getting their product right.

In my opinion Prismatic is the next step from Google Reader. Underneath the shiny bits Prismatic polls RSS feeds, crawls updated pages, classifies the information, generates content summaries, titles and images and presents the story to you as a simple news/content item. But, as a regular user, you are not exposed to any of those shenanigans. Instead, all you get is an endless stream of news/information with an exceptionally high degree of relevance with zero active input from you.

If I had money to invest, I would certainly invest a fair chunk with Prismatic. I am still not sold on the idea that niche products like these can stand on their own two legs and scale into the hyper growth phase. But I am pretty certain that should the team choose to sell in the future, the exit would be fairly large for everyone involved and deservedly so too.

Disclosure: I have no connections with either product directly (other than a two bug reports) or through my clients.

Change The Thinking

Last evening, I had the opportunity to attend the Delhi chapter of Hacks/Hackers (terrible name, if you ask me) organized by Anika Gupta and  Shrey Malhotra. The idea was to get both hackers (better known as programmers) and hacks (better known as media professionals) on the same platform to figure out ways to reboot journalism. I won’t go into discussing the problems and opportunities in media and elsewhere. It is a topic that needs a different discussion. What I will write about is how we can probably do a better job of coming up with ideas and figure out if they are feasible at all.

At most of these events, I find a lot of bright people (both young and old) interested in trying to come up with different solutions to what they think is a problem. While these ideas do address some problem or the other, not all of them have enough merit to make the transformation from something an individual would love to use to something that can support a healthy growing business around it.

It was with this concept in mind that I asked everyone gathered the following questions:

  1. If you were given Rs. 5 crore, with the only condition being that you’ll build a media product, what would you do?
  2. How long do you think that money will keep you going?
  3. How long do you think it will be before you’ll break even on that money?

Unfortunately, I asked the question towards the end of the session and at least Nikhil thought it was an attempt by me to crowdsouce a business plan. Nobody else attempted an answer and that is where we have to change things first. Ideas are like stones in a river, there is always more than enough in there. To succeed as a business, you have start at the point of being able to answer the three questions (OK, you can change that 5 crore figure to anything you like) about your idea.

Understanding these key numbers (traction, revenue, OPEX), even to the limited extent you can project them, will help you look more effectively for the size/kind of investment you need. It will also give you a good idea about timeframe/runway you’ll have at different investment/traction levels. It may look like too much icky work for either a hacker or hack, but if you are going to wade into creating a business/product or come up with serious enough suggestions to reboot any business, you have to learn to work with these numbers.

Short of that, all we’d be doing will be idle ‘ideation‘.

Publishing, Distribution And Consumption In A Brave New World

One of my greatest disappointments with the past ten years in the digital sphere has been the absence of the creation of something that is immense. The eighties saw the growth and evolution of computing in the personal sphere, the nineties saw the evolution of the internet. But, over a decade into the new millenium, we have nothing to show more than refined versions of what has already been put into place. What I did not realize was that we may just be in the midst of experiencing something that is immense, but that something may not be a particular technology or a product. That something is only what a bunch of technologies or products enable us to do with information.

The past 15-years has been a frantic, often unpredictable, ride for the publishing business. What, even 20-years-ago, was the domain of the few has exploded into a creature so different that everyone who reads or write anything these days are still struggling to grasp the enormity and the meaning of the changes that are affecting it. The existing rules regarding who, why and what gets published is being shred to bits and new rules are being made up every day. All parts of the trade — writing, editing, distribution and consumption — are so drastically different from two-decades ago. This is disruption on a scale seldom experienced before.

Death of many gatekeepers

Content is now created on so many platforms – blogs, tweets, personal websites, photo sharing sites; content is now distributed over so many channels – email, social networking sites, content aggregators; content is now consumed over so many channels – browsers, desktop applications, mobile applications, email. What used to be a strictly linear process (create -> distribute -> consume) is now something that is best described as being similar to Brownian motion. What used to be predictable in most cases is vastly unpredictable now. In this brave new world almost everyone is a participant and nobody is a real gatekeeper anymore.

In a pre-internet world there existed clear definitions regarding producers/writers, distributors and consumers of content. Content could be only a handful of things; books, articles in newspapers and magazines. Only a handful of people were either allowed or enabled to create this content and there were clear rules regarding membership into this select club. This content was consumed over clearly defined channels like books, news publications and magazines. If you could not access any of these channels, what you wrote had little value as nobody could consume it. Consumers of content had no other available option, but to be reliant on the established channels.

The scenario now is so very different. Almost anyone is now a creator of content. And by anyone I mean anyone. For a long time now, I have held that there is no social media. There are only creators, distributors and consumers of media/content. Comments, tweets, mashups, curated lists – all these are as much content as any form of reporting or long form writing. Of course, all comments, tweets and mashups are not the same quality as all reporting out there, but it is also true that all reporting is not really all that great. Yes, it is jarring to see slang, SMS-language and badly written text in things I read, but that does not make it any less useful or informative compared to established publications.

This has serious implications for the old guard. Gatekeepers, in any ecosystem, wield tremendous power. This power is accrued from predictability, reach and resources. Publications are valued because they publish to a predictable schedule, with a quality that is predictable, with topics that are predictable. Publications are valued based on the number of people they can reach. Publications are also valued based on their ability to cover topics; some cover a large number of topics at a shallow level; some cover fewer topics at a far deeper level. The new world of content and publishing has attacked each and every source of power of the gatekeepers.

Implications on the present

The first implication of this is on pricing. Ability-driven scarcity has been one of the key factors in enabling publications to charge what they used to charge. Since the information they publish is no longer scare, that rug has been firmly pulled out from underneath their feet. Almost every new old-school style publication that has attempted to charge a premium in recent years has tried to based it on opinion or exclusivity than attempting to do it over information. The businesses based on pushing information like in the old ages will survive as long as digital reach continues to exhibit the current constrained growth and the lack of understanding and translating key businesses metrics in digital remain. But it is an inescapable fact that such businesses are living on borrowed time.

In 2004, I remember telling my boss at that time that we need to pro-actively plan for a world where we can’t control the form factor or context in which information published by us will appear. In 2012, I consume most of the content I read and view now from my Twitter timeline, Hacker News and Google News. There are very few instances where I consume content from homepages of publications. I had previously tackled this topic in 2010 and the risk to brands and publications on this front continue to only grow with time. Brands and publications that ignore this threat will pay a big price in the coming years.

Crystal Ball

It would be the greatest lie if I were to tell you that I know exactly how this is going develop and what the future of publishing will look like. Currently, content anywhere is one of the bleakest businesses to be in at scale, while it is one of the easiest to bootstrap and hit Ramen profitability, should you choose to put your mind to it. Nearly non-existent entry barriers (domain registration & basic web hosting) and a preponderance of Ramen profitability creates an illusion of stellar prospects for the domain, but the actual outlook at scale is really dire. It is rare to find successful large-scale digital/non-digital publications that are in the black. The risks in being involved in the domain with any sort of significant investment on either side of the table is significantly high.

For existing publishers, the way forward is to measure everything and understand the numbers and your core audience very well. Monetization strategies will continue to be unpredictable for many years to come. That you are pulling good revenue is now not a guarantee of the same in anything other than the immediate term. Audience funnels and goals need to be set and tracked as a core operational metric. The industry still has an excessive reliance on gross numbers that does not differentiate in value between customer A and customer B. If you can’t make that differentiation, it is only natural that you can’t monetize better.

For investors, at least in India, publishing is a no-go territory for any fund that probably has a size in excess of $100 million. There is no scale in the business at this point which will allow for returns that justify the investment. Even established players have been demonstrating flat or slow growth in revenue (no point talking profitability) over the past three-years. Even that growth is impacted by increasing operating costs that have not slowed down in the same years. Valuation, based on potential, can be easily ignored here. Exits are rare and at a level that makes no sense for anyone other than the founders and some form of relief for early stage investors. There are way too many shackles that make any attempted disruption too costly.

For the consumers, publishing is a lovely place to be at right now. Both quality and quantity has grown in content that is available for consumption. The growth is quantity has also led to the emergence of aggregators and curators. They used to play an important role in the early web as consequence of nearly non-existent means of searching the web with its limited content at that time (problems of discovery and scarcity of content), now they play an important role because of the excess of content that is available for consumption. Things will only get better for them. These are the true winners in this game.

FirstPost.com: Will It Work?

It won’t.

Before I get into the economics of it, let me first tackle the concept. Going by Raghav Bahal’s introduction:

Today, news is a hyper-active, multi-point phenomenon, with you at its epicentre. You read, write, bounce, redirect, navigate, pick, choose, reject, reinforce, tweet, facebook and firstpost it … Yes, you Firstpost it.

I am not sure what exactly does that mean beyond previous attempts at a forced transformation to a verb like “blishing it”. Ironically, in all the activities mentioned in the quote, “firstpost it” is the odd man out. You don’t need FirstPost.com to do any other activities mentioned in that sentence. The introductory post aside, the concept seems to be built along the lines of early days of The Huffington Post (the current avtaar is a totally different story from what it was like when it was launched).

Huffpo was reportedly set to make a profit in 2009, ‘nearing‘ its first annual profit (no numbers disclosed) by the end of 2010 and was not “rushing to be bought” only months before they were acquired by AOL in March, 2011. The company took $37 million in venture funding pre-AOL and had done $30 million in revenue in 2010. There is no available estimate of how much it costs to keep the operation going, but it is reasonable to expect that the number is non-trivial. It is an interesting model, but not a new one. You can always get traffic on the internet by throwing money at it, but it does not scale (well, other than the exception of Demand Media and they work on a different model altogether).

Let us tackle the numbers. Huffpo does an estimated 23 million uniques (figures from Compete and a guesstimated correction based on an earlier gap between internal and estimated numbers) in a month. On a comparative note, Facebook had an estimated 21 million uniques from India in 2010. As you can see, even with money thrown at it, similar scale will evade a product like FirstPost.com in India. The publication has nine employees on its editorial rolls. Other functions, I would assume, are handled by shared resources with the parent division.

My guesstimate puts the payroll for full-time employees at around Rs 1 crore annually. Distribution costs should be a tiny blip on the general Network18 infrastructure. They are running an out-of-home campaign supporting the product, but I don’t have an estimation on the costs and it could also be a barter or a non-cash deal like how the network sites were running an interstitial yesterday. If you factor in a variety of miscellaneous costs, I would think they would have to do at least Rs 1.5 crore in its first year of operations to reach break even.

Assuming the very unlikely situation of the product being able to sustain about 10 million page views in a month, at an average of four ad impressions per page view and Rs. 200 CPM, we still don’t cross Rs 1 crore in revenue. It is possible to run campaigns based on spots and innovations, but the revenues would be lower too in line with that. Needless to say, even at reasonable scale, they will struggle to make ends meet.

The problem is that scale is impossible in the domain once you stop massive SEM spends and leveraging network traffic. Mind you, I like the product. I have been looking forward to a content product from India that is produced and written well and tackles the topics that I am likely to follow. But, at the same time, I am also aware of the fact that an audience that comprises people like me is very much a niche. If we truly value products like these, we should also be willing to bear at least a part of the costs involved in putting it online.

FirstPost.com by no means is not the first attempt at such a product. The first version of Tehelka.com and the long-dead The Newspaper Today had attempted the same – trying to bring out a web-only well-produced publication. Even though FirstPost.com seems to be spending much less than what it had cost either Tehelka.com or TNT to get going, I am afraid the market dynamics have not changed much since then and it will suffer a fate that is not considerably different from them and unfortunately for FirstPost.com a Huffpo-esque escape into the arms of an AOL is not an option to them.

Disclosure: I have been previously employed by Network18, Tehelka and The India Today Group Online at different times in my career.

Quick Note On The Unholy Media-Business Connection

Much of what has been reported has not come as a surprise for most who have been on the inside. I saw a lot of this first-hand in 2002, when I was still part of the editorial set up, and could never really figure out how to make my peace with it. Somehow you are made to understand that this is how things are, get on with it. Why I finally left the editorial side of things about a year or so after that had a lot more to do with the fact that I just was not cut out for being a journalist. I did not have the persistence, patience or the thick skin required for it. Nor could I figure out the incredibly petty politics and other weirdness that accompanied it. Believe it or not, the business/operations side of it was much better compared to the editorial.

I was reading Indrajit Gupta's piece on the whole mess and was quite amused. He mentions how young journalists, who are not as well trained/mentored as an older generation used to be, are easily swayed by the temptations of planted information and leaks. The nice sleight of hand he pulls off in the argument is to absolve the senior journalists (most of those who are on the tapes could not have been called either “young” or “junior” in the past decade) and let it all rest on the kids who are not trained well enough. True, there is an issue with the quality of the younger professionals these days, but they did not cause this and the senior ones are the gatekeepers. The buck stops there.

The extent of all this is much beyond what is spoken or written about. PR companies have extensive profiles of both publications and their employees. It is well tracked, catalogued and often profiled to the extent of how should a story be pitched to you if you are working a beat that their client has interests in. That you are getting played is often a fact that you are not aware of even when you strongly believe you are not getting played. Fancy junkets and deep throats have long been a part of the industry, I am yet to come across any journalist who says “no” to either or both. If you work the beat, you always have to work your sources, it is just that the information is a lot more valuable these days, heavily incentivizing the plants. Consequently, it needs a lot more of vetting and scrutiny. But who has the time for all of that?

Media, New and Old Are Getting Played And How

We are at a very interesting stage in the way content is produced and distributed in our lives and two recent developments serve to demonstrate the challenges that are coming our way.

The first is the Apple iPad

The fact that it is not available in the market as yet has not stopped every self-styled pundit from predicting whether your mom (or grandmom) will line up to buy it and change the fate of the world, or if it will bomb.

In the months before the launch announcement, the degree of speculation regarding the device reached heights unseen before, all based on guesswork and 'informed' deep-throats. Now that it has been announced, the race is on to predict whether the world will end or if it will be rescued because of it. The fact is that nobody knows how it will do in the future, not even Apple, for that matter.

Both media and the blogging/tweeting brigade loves a sensational headline and the iPad is now an excellent muse for that.

The second development is Hiphop, which is Facebook's PHP-to-C++ convertor/compiler.

When the news first filtered out that Facebook was up to something that had to do with the guts of PHP, it caught on pretty fast. The story ran with the implied notion that Facebook was developing a new PHP runtime of its own because normal PHP was getting to be too slow for it.

This was tweeted and written about in a lot of publications, citing the original post as the only source. The original post itself was largely speculative and had zero comments from anyone who could be qualified enough on the situation.

Speculation, guesswork etc are are fine within the realm of publishing content, especially news content. The problem kicks in where nobody bothers to correct these wrong assumptions once, they have been found to be wrong.

Since that time, Facebook publicly unveiled the project which turned out to be anything but a new runtime. The project – HipHop – converts PHP code into C++ and allows you to run it as a compiled binary. Nothing outstanding or exceptional about it. But the merit of the project itself is not the issue here.

The problem is when people who write about these things don't do their homework, nor won't they update previously published erroneous stories. Case in point is the RWW story: Facebook Rewrites PHP Runtime With HipHop. The post even has a comment by David Recordon, who is both a Facebook employee and a noted geek saying the story is wrong. The author responds to the comment, but the story stands uncorrected.

What is common in both the cases is how well both bloggers and media are getting played these days. Yes, the whole PR/Media loop is a bit of a game of cat-and-mouse and on an average the good and the bad tends to balance each other out, but that is no longer the case anymore.

Companies are now using the desperate need for journalists to brand everything as a 'killer-this' or a 'flop' that they are playing them more than ever before. Even with the bloggers they are now extending the concept of exclusive previews. Look at the case of both the the Nexus One. Some of the prominent bloggers were given units to play around with, but it was under an embargo/NDA. This has an interesting side-effect of effectively silencing a bunch of thought leaders while leaving the floor open for rank speculation and calculated leaks and it worked extremely well for Google. For a me-too Android phone, it got excellent coverage and Google could really control the message too very well.

In the case of Facebook's HipHop, the company seems to have gained enough mileage from the launch, but what remains now as urban legend is that the PHP runtime is not 'fast enough'. This, when tweeted and retweeted by people who don't even understand what is being talked about, slowly gets into the public's psyche, eventually trickling down into purchasing and platform decisions.

Looking at the information landscape these days, it is a worrying picture that I get to see. There are near-zero sources of information that are either accurate or objective or both. Yes, we all love to be read more and as firms we would love to have our products sell well, but there has to be limits to all of these things. There is little wonder that I don't miss reading much news as it breaks these days. The real flavour of it comes to the surface a few days down the line.

Of Missed Opportunities In Indian Media

Publishing content online is 2/4th measurement, 1/4th experimentation and 1/4th instinct. It is sometimes a science, sometimes an art and a lot of other times blind guesswork. After reading the Afaqs story that asked whether print publications in India are getting their story wrong in online, my thoughts went back to the year 2000, when I started out in online media in India. In the years since, I have worked in a variety of media publications and in various roles (editorial, technology, product, operations etc) and if there is one thing that I have seen done wrong consistently, it is that we never get the measurement part of it right.

But, I must digress here for a bit, for the noise surrounding pay walls and the end of free content online has been near-deafening of late. While I did spend reasonably lengthy amounts of time with The Indian Express, Indiatimes and CNN-IBN, my rather-confusing CV does not always mention two smaller stints in the years since 2000. The first was with a publication called The News Today, which was later renamed to The Newspaper Today. The second was a pathbreaking product called Tehelka. I did not last at either of those two places, I won't start on why, for those are reasons that don't fall under the scope of this post.

The difference in those two websites from the many other media websites that used to be online from India was that both were online-only publications. While Tehelka is for many readers a niche activist print magazine, in its first avatar the magazine was an online-only publication. Even though most of the notoriety associated with it was due to the spy-cam episode, the website had original content over which much effort and money was spent. The Newspaper Today was the online-only newspaper by India Today Group Online (ITGO), from a time before when Mr. Purie went rogue on digital and spent the following years undoing some good work the group had done earlier.

Both were ambitious projects. Both were products that were way too ahead of its time. But the cost structures involved in both products at that stage were impossible to sustain. I highly doubt if the outcome would be any different if those two products were to be launched again in 2010. In the years that followed, I left Tehelka and then The Newspaper Today (where I filled in for a week while a certain P.V. Sahad was looking after the business section) and went on to work at other media houses. India Today tried doing a pay wall with its magazine sites, which also came to naught. Tehelka fought for its survival in what became a political battle, the old website and concept was killed and it later emerged as a print magazine. ITGO became India Today Group (Not) Online and Mr. Purie wiped out the years from 2000 – 2005 from his memory.

So, is there a point to this post? Yes, there is one. It is a point that is missed almost entirely by the digital content publishing fraternity in India. The first is that we don't measure anything right. Measuring right is not just getting the distinction between your 'hits' and 'page views' right, it is also has to much with the ability within online media set ups here to delude themselves year in and year out. This is the typical conversation that happens between editorial and management in most operations:

Management: Okay, we have done n million this month. Your target for the month to come is two times n million. Can we do it?

Editorial: I do not think so, but we can try.

Management: I don't care. Just get me the results.

What follows is the usual predictable cycle. Editorial will use every trick in the trade to push up numbers (slide shows, steamy stories, 200-word stories that paginate thrice, iframes and whatnot). There is a marginal uptake in the numbers (especially if it has been an eventful month) and in the next review, after management expresses its disappointment with the two times n not being accomplished, the sign that there is some uptake is cited as going in the right direction and the same conversation and events are repeated.

I am not touching the concept of SEM in all of this. Doing SEM for news content is outright wrong. The value in publishing news for companies is to get sustained usage. SEM rarely succeeds in doing that. Additionally, the cost per click for event-based keywords are often obnoxiously high, resulting in user acquisition numbers that can never be offset by the inventory it generates.

Across the board there is a significant lack of internal honesty within media companies to address the issue of measurement. In the ten-years that I have worked in the companies, I have rarely seen a news website (please exclude business websites that do portfolio managers from the list) clock over 2 million page views in a day as an average in India. I find it impossible to believe that even with the small addressable opportunity we have here, the 2MM glass ceiling is still there, which is reflective of issues that have little to do with the opportunity size itself.

For years we have now run after the following metrics: page views, visitors and unique visitors. Everything is set, measured, sliced and diced based on this. As long as those three determinants are positive, everyone is happy. Management will then pile on to the sales team to flog the new inventory. But what exactly do the people who buy that inventory get for the money they spend? They get splits according to geography and in certain cases splits based on content categories. Thankfully, at least in some of the organizations there are now numbers being tracked in terms of cost per user and cost per page view, but these are only used to set targets for sales teams.

The part that I am getting to is that we do not think of our readers as nothing but a means to generate more inventory. There is no real engagement of the user. There are users who invest real time and effort into interacting with our products, but in India we have no culture of nurturing them. And no, don't give me that drivel about crowd-sourcing. I have done that for a few years and let me tell you, it is more expensive to maintain and curate than internal content. Anybody who will tell you that crowd-sourcing is the fix to all your ailments has never run something of that sort at a decent scale.

The fact is that unless we change the economics of doing online news in India or the model (from top-bottom to bottom-top), we are going to be exactly where we are not even a few years down the line. I do sympathize greatly with the opinions expressed in the Afaqs piece, but really, you don't more of the same beaten-to-death strategy that refuses to work and expect different results. What I fear for is that this 'introspection' of sorts by them will be used as a cover to gloss over the significant issues the industry itself won't look at and it will eventually result in a situation where everyone will scale down and kill any possible innovation across the board.