Are Media Companies One Native Ad Away from Becoming Press-titutes?

When we were asked to participate in Omidyar’s “Future of Media in India” event, David Kirkpatrick and I both questioned what we could add on a topic that was pretty far from our own experience. In hindsight, we knew more than we gave ourselves credit for. The India market, it turns out, is not much different than that of the US, maybe just a couple of years behind. Publishers and journalists are eager to transition from print to digital, they are trying to figure out how to reach their readers in a mobile-first world, and they are struggling to find a sustainable business model to support their efforts. 

From left: Indrajit Gupta, David Kirkpatrick, Maria Ressa, Marcus Brauchli. Photo by Josh Kampel.
From left: Indrajit Gupta, David Kirkpatrick, Maria Ressa, Marcus Brauchli. Photo by Josh Kampel.
From left: Indrajit Gupta, David Kirkpatrick, Maria Ressa, Marcus Brauchli. Photo by Josh Kampel.

When we were asked to participate in Omidyar’s “Future of Media in India” event, David Kirkpatrick and I both questioned what we could add on a topic that was pretty far from our own experience. In hindsight, we knew more than we gave ourselves credit for. The India market, it turns out, is not much different than that of the US, maybe just a couple of years behind. Publishers and journalists are eager to transition from print to digital, they are trying to figure out how to reach their readers in a mobile-first world, and they are struggling to find a sustainable business model to support their efforts.

David discussed his experience watching his longtime employer Time Inc. wrestle with such questions, and the growing role that Facebook, which he wrote about in The Facebook Effect, will play in the media landscape. Meanwhile, I shared the stage with a group that gave various perspectives on models for media monetization. It included News Corp’s Raju Narisetti, and the former editor of the Chicago Tribune who now runs the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, Ann Marie Lipinski. Dutch De Correspondent founder Rob Wijnberg discussed his business model based solely on subscriber revenue, and News Lens founder Joey Chung explained how he became one of the fastest growing news sites in Taiwan. We were preceded by a panel on the new tech-enabled newsroom that included Wall Street Journal and Washington Post editor turned media investor Marcus Brauchli and former CNN correspondent Maria Ressa, who now runs the hugely influential Filipino social news network Rappler.

What was most surprising was the pessimism of the large number of eminent attendees Omidyar had gathered in the room. Predominantly Indian journalists and media entrepreneurs, they overwhelmingly said that the population there is not willing to pay for content. (That’s partly because even print papers have been mostly free or close to it in India.) In the same breath, they expressed their concern about taking advertising dollars or even more objectionable, the idea of business models that leveraged paid content or native advertising. This sentiment seemed to stem from the way in which political parties in India have historically exploited the media as a mouthpiece for their own gain. I learned a new word, “presstitutes,” which one audience member used when explaining what local media had been called when publishing third-party content. I tried to make the case that it is not that black and white. At Techonomy we have found that we can often work with brands to co-create content that serves our editorial mission and delivers valuable insights to our community.

The questions that media companies around the world face when launching new ventures are little different in India. Should you be an original content creator or an aggregator? Require a paywall or be advertiser supported? Work with native advertising or not? Then of course our own Techonomy model relies heavily on high-quality editorial events as the foundation for our other activities. Ultimately, my recommendation to the group was to define your unique mission, understand your audience and engage with them, and don’t be opposed to working with partners who share in your vision and are willing to support you. Unfortunately, not all media ventures will commercially succeed, but with the various platforms available to distribute content, maybe success could be defined individually a different way.

The Omidyar Network is a Techonomy partner.

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