The Times of India just introduced a paywall for its e-paper. We analyse the move and interview the chairman of the executive committee of BCCL about it.

Earlier this month, leading English daily The Times of India (TOI) decided to put its e-paper behind a paywall. The e-paper is also the latest addition to the Times Group’s subscription-based news products, which already include ET Prime and TOI+ (ad-free TOI with special stories). The TOI e-paper is now available at a monthly subscription fee of Rs 199.

Most digital news publishers in India aspire to put their products behind a paywall, similar to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg and Financial Times in the West.

The ‘paid e-paper’ club in India already includes The Hindu and The Indian Express, beside TOI. The Hindustan Times is yet to make a move. The Hindu’s e-paper is priced at Rs 799 for six months, and Rs 1,299 for a year. The current annual subscription fee for The Indian Express’ e-paper is Rs 999.

The recent lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted the circulation of newspapers. There were rumours that newspapers could also act a vector for the disease. The impact was such that the top brass of print media houses, along with government bodies, had to come up with clarifications.

So, the focus shifted to e-papers, with PDF versions of newspapers being widely circulated over WhatsApp and email. Both The Indian Express and The Hindu briefly made their e-papers free for the lockdown period.

Speaking about the PDF circulation and the overall shift, Sandeep Amar, founder, Publishers Digital Lab (consultancy for digital publishers), says, “It seems that the strategy, not just for TOI but others as well, was to showcase their distribution to advertisers, saying, ‘If not through print, we are available digitally via PDFs’. Most players were aggressive about their PDF circulation.”

Amar (who is also the former CEO of Indian Express Digital) says that the strategy of distributing PDFs (by almost all the players) probably did not work well with advertisers. “The circulation of e-papers via mediums like email, WhatsApp, etc., can’t be substantiated for advertisers because it’s not there on the server and the readership can’t be tracked.”

He also mentions that there is a probability of fear among publishers that if consumers get hooked on to the e-paper, they may not go back to the (physical) paper. He, however, is of the opinion that e-papers are not popular, in general, and also not an easy way of reading news. “It has value in scenarios like preparing for exams due to the large, easily accessible archives. E-paper is very small in the whole digital scheme of things. Say, in Comscore, if a site has 50 million users, e-papers would be at less than a million users. It is more of a perception move,” Amar adds.

We interviewed Sivakumar Sundaram, chairman of the executive committee of BCCL (TOI’s owner company), on the news brand’s latest move.

Sundaram says that the lockdown has brought various constraints, and one of them was the difficulty in distribution in some markets. This caused TOI’s readers to turn to the closest alternative to their newspaper also causing a surge in new users. Sundaram suggests that a freely available e-paper meant easy fodder for fake and doctored versions. He pegs the paywall as a potent remedy for the problem. “We believe that not only our patrons, but people who were not Times of India readers are also subscribing to our e-papers. The intention was to separate the men (newspapers) from the boys (fake forwards), and that impact has been accomplished by the introduction of the paywall,” he adds.

 

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