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.