What is Wrong with Online Presence of Indian Newspapers?

Quite a lot! 

Although they are slowly and steadily improving, a lot of work still remains. The key driver of the problem is that the majority are trying to solve the internet problem themselves. They impose print mentality on an entirely different medium. This has resulted in an absolute disaster like it has been the case elsewhere in the world.

The online divisions mostly work within the over-arching strategy of their parent groups – which are usually inappropriate for the dynamic internet. Google up editors-in-chief at big news houses and tell me who is not gray headed? They grew up in an age without internet. They are wise in the business of news, but the way they think about the internet problem is anachronistic. Real time update is not an “internet strategy”– it is Internet 101!  The fact that Dainik Jagaran, one of their numbers, has partnered with Yahoo, thereby creating a well organized website is lost to them. People should not only know what they can do, but also what they cannot do.

Unfortunately, while most understand the value of the internet, online presence is often a small part of a newspaper’s revenues and contributes a small portion of the manpower. This results in curtailment in power of the department. Recently, the focus on internet has sharpened. In some cases it may be driven by a desire to portray themselves as a “new age” company in order to get higher valuations. Whatever be the reason, the investment into internet has gone up. However, the media houses are struggling with the strategy. This leads to warped choices around content selection, display and business decisions.

Due to muddled and delayed actions, they have lost a number of revenue opportunities.  A classic example is Naukri.Com coming in and capturing online career classifieds business. In general, pure-play internet players lead the game in the critical online classifieds business. Desperate for revenues, newspapers choke their websites with buy this & buy that, undermining the main content. Maybe acquisitions in this space are a way out. However, who will save the acquired companies from being run into ground with stone age mentality?

However, it is not just the strategy which is broken. The website layouts are a disaster. An online newspaper often carries over not only the content, but also the look and feel of the print newspaper. In the age of blogs and RSS, they have columns upon columns of text and tens of tabs. On must move eyes in two directions to get to the content and then discover it is not the desired one. They have often have sections called “Web special”! Hello – this is a website! What do you mean by “Web special”?

Discovery of content on the websites is extremely difficult. There is no tagging and no proper categorization. There is a mass of unrelated content on every page. In the age of search – they are still stuck with the eyeball discovery. Mind you – having a search box is not enough! Its proper presentation is a must. Customization capabilities are also extremely limited. If one doesn’t like sports, she cannot get rid of it. Some western newspapers have woken up to the need of being user-friendly. BBC.com’s layout is an example of a step in the right direction, although there is something still missing in it as it looks quite dry.

Clicks, sharing patterns, search trends provide powerful real-time feedback. This is totally lost to newspapers. The best many of them have gotten to is creating a Facebook page and fishing for “Like” clicks! Moreover, high profile journalists are not the only people who can provide good content. CNN’s iReport – in which viewers – share own stories is an example of utilization of outside assets.  Do Indian newspapers know that mobile penetration in India is 50%? Who will harness that reporting power?

There are many other issues with the mobile phone scenario. However,  this arena is still evolving. Presenting mass of data on a phone is a problem yet to be satisfactorily solved. The expected wildfire adoption of 3G in India will only make this need acute. A tier 2 city resident will not shell out money for a junk which she neither understands nor has the skills to sift through.

Before closing my argument, I must be fair and give newspapers credit too. They have been serving the cause of freedom of speech and the formation of public opinion. They are drivers of social change and often get justice done for the underprivileged. The problems they face are the problems incumbents always face when the game changes. How to overcome existing momentum and change direction? They have already recognized that online presence is a must and they are investing heavily. However, they need right technology partners and investments in right startups. Maybe they should behave like VCs investing in content creators and content presenters. One must remember – content is free on the internet. Therefore, money needs to be made on presentation and personalization (or maybe somewhere else!).

What’s your take?

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