Hello, Newspapers: When in doubt, rely on the idea of complementarity.

Several years ago during a business conference, a colleague tossed a simple and very direct question to the CEO. “Considering the growth of digital medium how long newspapers in printed form are going to survive?” he asked. CEO thoughtfully acknowledged the threat and appreciated the concern raised by the colleague and made a prophetic announcement; “yes, newspapers will close down in decades to come but we will be the last to shut shop.” This discussion stayed with me and I often wondered what did the CEO mean when he said- last to close. Most of our concerns about the future of print newspapers are as follows:

  • Fall in readership as millennials are not reading print form of newspapers
  • News consumption on digital platforms has  much faster growth
  • Advertisers are shifting their budgets to digital marketing
  • Online presence of newspapers hardly brings any revenue

Clearly, all players are worried about getting substituted by the digital onslaught and it is reasonable to be concerned. However, let us take a leaf from the industry’s tryst with technology in general. Music consumption was primarily through records and then cassettes and CDs and now in digital format. What did this do to the demand for music? It increased and in different formats including the recent innovation of Carvaan that plays digital music on radio like instrument. When computers came into our lives, papers were to become a thing of the past. Did we get a paper-free office? No, the demand for paper has actually gone up with rising penetration of computers. Therefore, it may not be right to think solely on the basis of substitution. More so in the case of news consumption wherein the exposure to information through multiple platforms could enhance the overall consumer experience. Let me illustrate this with an example: I have been reading The Economic Times, print edition for almost 30 years. For the last 10 years, ET is available on my mobile app and of course as an e-paper on my laptop. My engagement with ET has gone up considerably as the app sets the agenda for my ET reading during the day. At least in my case, I can see the complementarity between ET and ET app and it is working well.  However, ET doesn’t seem to know this for when they launched ET Prime; a subscription-based business content service; it tried to keep the content exclusive to online only.

I have been following a Hindi newspaper and its digital edition and other digital content using the same brand umbrella. This is one of the largest read newspaper and its readers are also consuming content online through newspaper apps and social media handles. The newspaper brand is likely to benefit a lot with more engagement on its online platforms and that engagement could strengthen its relationship with the readers. If a newspaper marketer buys into this principle of complementarity, it would be easier to devise a strategy to operationalize the benefits. For example, consider these:

  • Can the online version of the newspaper be a subscription-based revenue model?
  • Can advertising options be bundled across platforms to measure effectiveness through well-defined metrics?

My argument is for the alignment of print and online versions in a complimentary manner that raises the marketing ROI of advertisers. A wider and deeper engagement with the readers can be achieved through innovative bundling of revenue streams; subscription and advertising included.

Back to my business conference, the question and the answer that we will be the last to close. In that answer, there were two hidden insights; first, it all depends on how do you see the change and second, are you ready to conceptualize and articulate the change in a way that takes into account all the stakeholders and most importantly, the readers. As much as newspapers can uncover the deeper mechanism that is driving this change, they would be better placed to not just survive but thrive in the changing business environment. And, then all players in the market can aim to close last!


Missed Opportunities : An Organizational Perspective

Much has been written about the success of new ideas that turned into huge business entities in both technology and non-technology segments of the industry. These are amazing stories of power of imagination, grit, perseverance and ability to withstand failures and getting up one more time to get closer to success. Consider global brands such as Apple or Indian e-commerce giants such as flipkart – these companies rode on the huge entrepreneurial drive and a belief that it could change the ways consumers behaved! In fact many of these companies believed that consumers could go wrong in the choices that they make and if they are given the right choice, consumers will question their own judgments about the product price, quality and experiences. However, if we look at traditional business conglomerates, specially in India, one wonders why these companies could be missing opportunities one after another. Several reasons can be proposed to dissect the phenomenon and some of these are explained below:( Self-limiting ideas and suggestions to overcome these)

1. Change is a  process : Organizations like to believe that change in technology has to undergo adaption process. Rightly so but for few exceptions wherein it does not necessary have to go through all the stages with a defined transition period. Internet and digital technology is one such example. Two years ago, most of the media companies considered this as a developed economy phenomenon. Today, even the industry forecasts recognize the explosive growth that digital media platforms are looking at. The change is much faster than expected and by the time this realization sets in, its too late. Consider tradition newspapers facing competition from news apps. Today we may like to laugh it off, but sooner than tomorrow we may see that in action!

Think about it : Only if Shoppers Stop knew that technology will change the way people buy, wouldn’t they be the largest e-tailers in India? What they believed in was the power of incremental innovation.

2. Incremental Innovation is Good Enough: For sure it is. It allows organizations to be on a steady growth without taking too much risk at the same time introducing products and services that keep meeting customer needs in a more effective way and results in cost efficiency. Nothing wrong in this philosophy but for one : it s a good idea for focusing on your current business/industry. But if you are looking at riding the next big wave of change, the organizational energy required to fire up imaginations is simply huge. Organizations then need to promote a culture of radical thinking to spot opportunities and expand the planning horizon to may be next two decades!

Today, while we continue to debate the future of print media,  futuristic media organizations are looking at media convergence as a way of incremental innovation. The best ones are busy identifying next big wave of opportunities enabled by technology such as Education! Watch out for Bennett University.

3. Thought Bondage : We are the best in the business! Yes you sure are but this is the era of indirect learning, the benchmarking framework has moved. The best practices of business are industry agnostic and beyond geographical boundaries. Thought leadership has just been redefined and a lack of it could lead to though bondage and cripple growth in an organization. In many organizations best practices benchmarking is a no go,even for  its own functions e.g HR, Finanace, Sales etc.  As Prof Rajesh Chandy suggests, ” Its all about spotting opportunities beyond one’s horizon”.

And one of the effective ways to break the shackle is to visit your people strategy.

4. People are HR and not strategic imperative : Its interesting to follow start-up hiring and the kind of emphasis they place on people. Tradition organizations are process driven and are largely obsessed with the idea of people as operation resource rather than that of a strategic resource. To complicate the people issues further, organizations promote ‘personality cult’ that limits the scope of institution building. As Devdutt Patnaik observes, ” Many great leaders are often Banyan trees, who do not let anyone else grow under them. They hire mediocre people and so create an ecosystem of mediocrity, which listens and obeys. They do everything in their power to kick out talent so that they are never threatened”.

Traditional organizations can afford this ( or can they?). Mediocrity strengthens the status quo,never questions it and thrives in that ecosystem till extinction.