Membership model – The Bread and butter

Bangalore Technology

Media experts said that readers are willing to pay for journalism that has value.

Sector-specific platforms are thriving in India due to the popularity of the internet and users’ willingness to pay, say media experts, journalists and users.

Saketh Ayyagari is the head of growth at The Bridge, an online sports news website that has narratives about Indian sports. He said that the internet can be credited for the growth of sector-specific platforms—the internet has easy access and can also easily support digital platforms.  

In India, digital media is expected to grow at 29.5 percent and will reach a market size of  Rs. 35.8 crores by 2023.  Over the years, many digital journalism start-ups have popped up, like BehenBox, The Probe, The Wire and The Quint. 

“People now have more options to choose from in the same amount of time. This led to sector-specific organisations rising, with unique selling propositions (USPs) and products that cater to different segments of the audience,” Saketh said.

He added that India’s journalism industry primarily focuses on politics, entertainment and cricket. “But there is an untapped desire even in the existing ecosystem to tell stories from these untapped fields. So, with new age journalists able to fulfil the demands in the best way for the audience.”

Google News initiative (GNI) conducted its first competition for Startups Lab in India—10 out of more than 70 applicants were finalized for the programme. These cover a variety of areas, ranging from National – Reach in the Union Territories of India (BehenBox), hardcore Olympic Sports and other sports (The Bridge), deep dive public interest journalism (The Probe).

Curiosity and ‘The Why’

Media experts also say that the need to know the ‘why’ in an issue has prompted the growth of sector-specific platforms.

Bhanupriya is the founder of BehenBox, a news platform that focuses on women’s development. “There is a need for niche information due to the failure of mainstream media outlets to go beyond the headlines on sector specific issues. People want to know the ‘why’ of things,” she said.

Journalists say that the new technique to success is to pick a niche.

Priyam Marik, a journalist from Kolkata, said that news publication in the digital space tend to pick a niche to compete with more established platforms.  “It is also an option that is more financially viable when a publication is starting out. Plus, with the boom of the internet, so much more news is becoming feasible to report,” he said.

Marik added that readers are becoming more intelligent in their consumption of sector-specific content—this has also helped the growth of such platforms.

The paywall way

Readers say they support the idea of having an affordable paywall—this is a system where users who pay will have exclusive access to some content on a website.

Gotashri, a student from Chennai, said that such payment walls are becoming popular—she said that instead of the expensive rates of many news platforms, she prefers an affordable pay wall.

Other users also support this idea.

Soumya Raju is a trainee journalist who is passionate about business journalism. Although she cannot afford such platforms as a student, she said she would be willing to pay for her news consumption.

Students say that they consume news through these sector-specific news platforms.

Anju Rabi, an M.Tech student from Bengaluru, said she mainly follows platforms like TechCrunch, VentureBeat and social media platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn to get news.

 “News coming from sector-specific news platforms is a good example of what passion for something leads to,” she said.

The breaking news culture

However, despite the growing popularity of digital media, television remains the most popular source.

Prema Sridevi, founder of The Probe, an investigative new platform, said that the trend of breaking news has been negatively affecting the news industry.

“The obsession over breaking news is strong over the mainstream channel. As a result, the real meaning of breaking news is blurred out. And the only thing to blame this for is ‘the intensity of competition’,” she said. She added that channels compete at the cost of journalism.  

Journalists say that the membership model is the new formula.

“With newspapers often coming as cheap as a sachet of shampoo and television channels, especially with the arrival of  Direct to home (DTH) services, charging next to nothing for news styled as entertainment,” Priyam said.

Marik said that payment walls are not for Indian consumers because they are unable to understand the idea that news is something that has to be paid for. “Most Indians assume that news is a natural resource, available for free or at dirt-cheap prices, which is embarrassing,” he added.

Prema and Bhanupriya both said that survival is  one of the biggest and constant challenges for independent journalism platforms.  

The Probe works on  the membership model. “We survive through people’s funds in the sense people pay for news because they find value in the news that we offer,” she added.

She said that   this model pushes platforms to not to compromise on the quality of journalism. “You don’t have any option but to keep bettering your quality and bettering your craft of journalism,” she added.

Priyam said that a paywall is  necessary for survival because it is a sustainable model and that people pay for value in journalism.

“I don’t have any data to analyse how well the ones with pay walls (such as Newslaundry or The Caravan) are doing in terms of their finances, but I think it’s safe to assume that if all Indian digital publications were to go behind a pay wall, most wouldn’t be able to survive for too long,” he said.  

But journalists also say there is a long way to go. Prema said a new breed of journalism is mushrooming in the country, so it gives a lot of hope.

“Also isn’t it the best form of journalism, when one doesn’t have to depend on the corporate lobbies, politicians, government?” she asked.