18 Nov 2017
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Raghav Bahl talks about digital news, future of journalism and risky nature of movie biz

MUMBAI: The future of news consumption is going to be nonlinear and will increasingly be consumed on the mobile. For online news, the revenue will take the form of branded content. The audiences for news services like The Quint will become so large that advertisers will have to find new and exciting ways to engage with them and this cannot be through 30-second ads or through static visuals.

These remarks were made by Indian media industry veteran Raghav Bahl at the valedictory session of FICCI Frames 2017.

Bahl’s new venture The Quint recently completed its second anniversary and Bahl isn’t worried that revenues for now are not large. The case was similar when TV18 was started and the annual revenue was Rs 30 million.

raghav bahlWe reach 40 million people a month. Revenues are a work in progress. The rule of thumb is that as audiences grow, revenues will move. This is my confidence even on digital. It is true that brand loyalty is ephemeral and one click can lose me my audience. However, people focus too much on the challenge and not enough on the opportunity,” he said.

For him revenues will come from branded content. “We are judging revenue from forms used by print and TV. But it is an organic process. Print ads evolved over decades. With TV came the 30-second ad. We gave a decade for TV advertising to evolve. Digital will evolve its own ad form. It cannot be a static ad, nor can it be a 30-second ad. It has to be an embedded native experience with the consumer who is evolving.”

He noted that subscription models for news work when there is a huge cachet of purchase for the consumer, where there is advice and one can take action. It can also be a utility. “However, not everybody can do this. The New York Times and the Economist can do it as they are legacy brands and there is power of content. However, nobody will pay for The Quint,” he said.

Linear and nonlinear content will co-exist. Linear content like magnum opus movies, or the IPL will be seen on static devices like theatres. With the IPL, you want to see it in real time in places like beer bars. Large-format, community events will be for the static screen in linear mode. He warned that content creators not working in these areas would have to think about nonlinear consumption of content and the mobile or else they will be dead. This especially applies to the news genre where consumption of it on the go will rise.

The big advantage of digital news is that distribution cost on digital is negligible. 25% of the cost structure comes down. Besides, there are no geographical boundaries. You can reach out to a global audience.

He said that the idea for The Quint came from touring the US and seeing the likes of Vox and Huffington Post.

The future of journalism: Talking about journalism, he noted that earlier it was linear and the editors decided the order of stories. There was no interaction with readers. “The work was morning, then nothing for much for the day, then work in the evening. This is changing in a nonlinear digital world. Now it is one continuum. News constantly pings you with a WhatsApp message, a Facebook message, a Twitter message.”

He warned that journalists can no longer act like the voice of God. They will have to not only lead but also follow their audiences. Journalists will have to listen and engage in a conversation with audiences. Sometimes counter arguments will be given by the audience. Experts are there on subjects who can point out errors of context made by a journalist. This message will be broadcast to the world through mediums like Twitter. It will not be just a letter to the editor.

“If an editor believes that he/she can singularly dictate the agendas and doesn’t listen to the audience, they will be extinct. You need to get the audience involved with content creation,” he said.

He reiterated the fact that branded content is the only way forward in terms of revenue for digital news outlets. The advantage is that even if piracy happens, it is good as branded content will reach millions of additional viewers. Video is clearly the way forward. “Video is language agnostic. As bandwidth improves, it is the way to go.”

The challenge: Fake news and trolls are challenges. “It is tough if you allow upload freedom. Technology will find solutions. I am not concerned about an ideological opinion that I disagree with. The problem is fake news and very abusive trolling where it becomes a dirty environment.”

He noted that platforms can create artificial intelligence and algorithms to check that abuse beyond a certain level does not go through. One can see a situation where there is wait period of a 20- or 30-second delay for authentication of information.

In order not to become obsolete and risk extinction, editors must learn the rules of social media. Journalists must understand things like SEO optimisation, social media and digital analytics. He also insisted that editorial meetings must have 20-somethings represented as they are smart and understand the digital world.

When asked about the possibility of working with Chinese companies, he said that his company works with UC Browser. “As Chinese companies create products in English our engagement will go up,” he added.

He lamented the fact that while China gave its internet companies protection in their initial stages to allow them to grow, India has thrown its internet companies to the mercy of giants. “We are in danger of becoming a digital colony controlled by Western firms,” he said.

The folly of making movies: Talking about his previous business, he said that from his experience movie business was something that he was sure he did not want to enter into in his second innings. He pointed out that movie studios in India will shut down unless the cost imbalance is checked quickly. Network18 suffered its biggest losses making films. He explained that top talent gets 35–40% of revenue. In Hollywood, on the other hand, it is 10% and in a rare case maybe 15% but not more than that. The rest of the revenue goes to the studios, financiers and other talent. In India, it is an unbridgeable gap.

“In terms of content creation, we flunked in the film business. We lost the most money at Network18 from films. We were in it from 2007 until 2014. We were happy that a big star, a big director had been roped in and we would expect a certain return. But the returns did not happen on the profit side,” he stated.