The past fortnight (March 7-March 21), Scroll.in took a big step towards strengthening the interests of its readers when it invited them to subscribe to the publication.
When readers take out a subscription, they tend to develop a sense of ownership in the publication. The media organisation too then tends to pay more attention to its readers. In addition, of course, the financially viability of the publication gets strengthened.
In the world of online publishing, there are no set rules on what make news sites viable. Since the Net developed as a free space, readers of news sites have come to expect free access.
The digital ventures themselves struggle to find the best strategy to make ends meet. They keep trying various subscription models. Some financial news sites charge users for access and that has worked for them. Some news sites have a pay wall for access beyond a certain number of free articles every month. Some keep everything free but appeal to readers to make contributions to the publication.
There are various combinations of free/paid access, but even today access by and large remains free. The other side of “ free access” is usually a heavy dependence on advertising. Banner ads, display ads, pop-up ads, native advertising…wherever you look there is advertising.
This dependence on advertising is not unique to the Net. It is there in print and it is there on TV as well. More than three decades ago, Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, in a seminal book titled Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), argued that advertising had come to exercise a pernicious influence on the economics of the mass media in the US. As media organisations turned to advertising and away from subscriptions to bolster their bottom lines, slowly but surely advertisers came to have a greater say on what was covered and what was not covered. There were supposed to be “Chinese walls” between the advertising and editorial departments, those walls were, however, often breached.
That trend has been taken to the extreme in India, with, in the newspaper business, advertising often accounting for two-thirds to three-quarters of annual income. Only a small fraction comes from subscriptions/retail sales. This dominance of advertising in the Indian media business was (in)famously articulated in an interview given in 2012 by a Director of the Times Group when he said,“We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business.” One cannot be disdainful of advertising, but there must be a semblance of a balance between advertising and subscriptions/retail sales. Without a sense of balance, the media business will naturally become the advertising business.
When advertisers become so important to the media business, readers/viewers naturally come second. The only way they can regain their centrality in the media is if they subscribe to the publications of their choice.
This is where Scroll.in’s partial shift to a subscription-based model comes in. If the publication broadens its sources of revenue it is in a healthier position. If readers contribute to financial viability, they can expect a publication that puts more effort into meeting their expectations.
The new rules of access are mixed. As the Editor of Scroll.in wrote inviting readers to subscribe, all readers can continue to read all the latest articles put out on the site. The subscribers get more – they have access to all articles published in the past; they get an ad-free site and, say the publishers, more offerings are on the way for subscribers.
Readers who do not want to subscribe or can’t take out yet another subscription pay for it in a different way – with articles peopled with ads.
There are now three types of ads on Scroll.in. “Native advertising”, or articles sponsored by or jointly written with advertisers has been the longest running kind of advertising. These ads follow the scroll on the site, usually below the first article one reads. Then more recently we have had those small “ears” of ads on the top left and right of the site and also the display ads in the middle of the site.
There has been an increase in ad content on (the free part of) Scroll.in, though it is still way below what one finds in most other sites. The publishers say this mix of advertising formats will continue, and Scroll.in itself will continue to diversify its revenue streams.
The one reader complaint that I receive off and on is about native advertising. From those who want “a clean and pure” web site with zero advertising to those who ask why native advertising receives so much prominence, a few readers have asked if these ads/articles are necessary.
Supporting quality journalism
From the publishers’ point of view, these ads are the most remunerative. But I am afraid I would agree with readers who are uncomfortablewith these kinds of ads. Content in “native advertising” is written and presented not as an advertisement but as an article. The matter is clearly labelled as prepared by or for the advertisers. But the format of the material can look very similar to articles written by Scroll.in’s reporters and writers. A reader who is not alert may be led to believe that this advertising material is indeed an article prepared by Scroll.in’s editorial team.
While only few have complained, I think most readers of Scroll.in would be happy if the publication eventually moved away from native advertising. If more readers subscribe and if Scroll.in develops more of traditional display advertising, every one may be well off. Subscribers get ad-free quality content plus; other readers also get quality content that comes with straightforward advertising.
So much for advertising, but the news of the fortnight certainly is that four years after its launch, Scroll.in is asking its readers for support in ensuring quality reporting and analysis.