Sachin Kalbag On The Impact Of Social Media On Publishers And Competition From Sites Like BuzzFeed

Sachin Kalbag, Editor MidDay talks about social media's effectiveness for publishers, credibility of it and competition from BuzzFeed and ScoopWhoop

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“I think the biggest competition is the Internet, for all newspapers. The Internet is here to stay. We can’t deny that. And the repercussions have been felt in other economies, in western Europe and America especially. But where others see a threat, I think there are opportunities for media houses in India if media houses invest in the right kind of technology.” This was Sachin Kalbag speaking to Mumbai Boss in the last quarter of 2012.

We are on the verge of biding adieu to 2014. Print has seen a decline in revenues in western markets but the same trend is yet to follow in India. 2013 saw the Print industry grow by 8.5 percent from Rs. 224 billion in 2012 to Rs. 243 billion. Earlier in the year, a FICCI-KPMG report predicted that Print will grow at 10 percent, whereas digital had a projected growth rate of 36.9 percent, albeit on a smaller base.

However, one can’t ignore the impact social media has on other mediums like TV and Print today. This year’s general election created a new medium of conversation as well as controversy – social media.

Sachin, who has been the editor of Mid Day since 2011, is quite active on Twitter from 2008 and appreciates the platform’s power to break the whole Chinese wall between the reader and the newspaper. Lighthouse Insights had earlier got in touch with him to get a quote on a year-end article but Sachin has been kind enough to dig into specific questions related to social media, technology and how listicle sites like Buzzfeed are challenging mainstream media. Listed below are edited excerpts from the email conversation:

How effective will social media be for publishers with organic reach dying?

Organic reach growth has slowed, but I do not think it is dying. What is happening is the transformation of a media-brand-loyal based viewing to curated viewing. It is this that is mostly driving the new traffic to news sites. The real trouble
Sachin Kalbagfor media houses is that in the online space, there is little or no loyalty. Therefore, social media took on a new significance in 2014. It will continue to grow in 2015, too, and perhaps at a faster rate. Advertising will necessarily have to follow suit (it already is doing so in many cases), and social media’s importance as a driver of traffic will assume greater importance.

Your thoughts on credibility of the medium.

Social media will continue to face a credibility crisis if the outrage factor is introduced when facts are still emerging for any event. For example, the Rohtak sisters, whose video of they beating up men in the bus went viral before another video emerged which questioned the credibility of the first one. In this case, both traditional media and new-age media were at fault, and credibility took a big hit. It is not that newspapers or TV channels or websites do not make errors, but there is an intrinsic fact-checking firewall that many newsrooms have instituted following the intense scrutiny by readers.

Just like news stories are planted in the traditional media, there will be “stories” planted in social media. Already, there are people who take money for tweets. You may call it “Paid Social Media”. It is the reality that cannot be wished away. Over a period of time, however, readers will understand and appreciate the difference between credible stories and other stories that need to be looked upon with scepticism, or worse, cynicism.

Your thoughts on investing in different content formats.

What works in print or on the television screen may not necessarily work online or in social media.

There is no option for media houses but to invest in different content formats. But more than the money, my strategy would be to train and sensitise journalists and other media professionals in handling these various formats. What works in print or on the television screen may not necessarily work online or in social media. For instance, memes work really well on Facebook and Twitter, and get you viewership by the lakhs, but they will never be an integral part of a newspaper or a TV news channel.

Similarly, local ecology stories or infrastructure woes seem to work for a newspaper, but hardly get any viewership online. Editors and their newsrooms will have to navigate through these dichotomies far more smartly than they have been doing up until now.

How do you see tech along with social media play to beef up the online publication?

I see a lot of integration of Web services in a single platform. For example, I will be able to not only read a film review, but I will be able to write one, Tweet it to my followers (or post on Facebook) and even buy tickets for the next show all from the same page. Unless media houses realign their thought as service providers rather than just being news agencies, any new technology will not do good.

The fundamental change needed is to the thought realignment of media companies into becoming news and news-related service providers. There will be no stickiness, otherwise, and we will go back to tackling and worrying about why people are not loyal to our brand online.

Lastly, how do you see the competition from listicle sites like BuzzFeed, do you see long forms eroding with shortening user attention spans?

The competition is indeed high, and these sites cater to the biggest challenge for any mainstream media outlet — attention span. Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and their Indian copycats have done a great job in attracting new audiences, with just the right kind of short-attention-span content.

Our stories make a difference to society, and perhaps the nation and the world in their own small way, and I would never want to change that.

But here’s the thing: there are different markets for each of the content categories, and in that sense, real journalism that is agnostic of content platforms, will continue to work well. Investigative journalism, like the stuff that Mid-Day does, may not get the same page views and unique visitors that a Buzzfeed would. It is unrealistic to even expect that.

But does a media outlet like Mid-Day have its niche? Yes. The same goes for other mainstream media houses, too. The secret is to create compelling and relevant content, and not necessarily list-oriented content to create more and more page views. There is also the image of the brand that is at stake.

Building a brand needs time, effort and money. It would be relatively easy to create a listicle-based site, and get millions of page views. But is that the ultimate reason for a newspaper to exist in any format? I am not sure. Our stories make a difference to society, and perhaps the nation and the world in their own small way, and I would never want to change that.