Friday, October 23, 2020

Bangladesh Media on Ventilator: Survival is in the Paywall

The old revenue model of newspapers was first hit by a degenerating disease some two decades ago. The coronavirus crisis has sent it to the ICU and it is now on a ventilator. The big newspapers in the West have already found a cure and they are now back from hospital and are thriving, thanks to massive expansion of their online subscription.

I have spoken to several Bangladeshi editors over the last few weeks and it seems they too have realised that erecting a paywall to make their online readers pay for the contents will be the main option if they want to survive the post Covid economic meltdown.

It is likely that if you want to read the country’s top newspapers in the Internet such as Prothom Alo and Daily Star, you may have to buy an online subscription for a whole year at a yearly fee of 1,000 taka. You will Bkash the money to the newspaper and they will give you a yearlong online password that will allow you unlimited access to their contents.

I understand Prothom Alo is already looking at several pay models for online subscription fees and newspapers like Bonik Barta, which caters to niche readers but has broader appeal, may follow suit.

But will you pay for the contents? I think you will. At least I will pay to buy a Prothom Alo (PA) online subscription. Reading PA has become a daily habit and I know a lot of people are addicted to its journalism. I don’t know of any other newspaper which I read to reconfirm what I have read elsewhere. We don’t have a newspaper of record like the New York Times or the South China Morning Post, but PA comes very close to that honour because a lot of people use it for fact-checking.

In a year, PA can grab as much as five million online subscribers, including a sizable number from Bangladeshi diaspora. Most others, excluding those who serve niche readers, may struggle to woo paid online readership, owing largely to the fact that their journalism is not addictive enough.

So what can they do, given that in the post-Covid economic wasteland, most may not get enough local advertisements to survive and print circulation will decline steadily? Already some are cutting a lot of jobs to make themselves lean and fit to weather the coming storm. They will continue to offer free online access to attract readers and to get some Ad revenue from Google. But because of huge retrenchment of journalists, they won’t be able to offer much as an alternate news outlet.

So, any newspaper, which thinks that it wants to woo at least a million paid subscribers, must invest in expansion, to grow big and make its journalism addictive. It will create a virtuous cycle: online subscription will bring bring money and big money will help you invest in new journalists. 

Small niche websites, which offer value for a particular group of readers’ money, will also survive albeit in a shoestring budget.

Some of them may get as much as 100,000 paid subscribers such as the Caravan.in in India.

How you will fare in the future depends on your strategy in the coming few weeks, but already signs are there that a newspaper that is addictive to read and that makes its vast number of online readers to pay for the news and other contents will be the winner by a big margin.

The author is a renowned Bangladesh journalist and Bangladesh Bureau Chief of AFP News Agency. 

This article was published as his Facebook status. Reprinted with permission. 

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