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The Hindu’s user engagement rises by 21 per cent in 6 months

The Hindu Group recently undertook a major initiative to overhaul their digital transformation strategy. The objective of the project was to seed audience-first thinking in the company’s Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru bureaus and study its impact before rolling out the program to all the centers. Neha Gupta has the story

Specifically, The Hindu Group (THG) wanted to streamline the flow of stories to its digital platform and align it with the consumption behaviour of its users and enhance the quality of storytelling through use of advanced technological tools. To assist them through the process, the group brought in two independent news consultants from the WAN-IFRA Expert Panel – Ola Henriksson (independent media consultant, Sweden, and a member of WAN-IFRA’s Expert Panel) and Lars Dahmén (independent media consultant, HiGear Transformation AB) – who coached THG journalists.  

“Publishers all over the world are struggling with aligning their editorial forces and finding the best way to transform. With a lot of experience from the Nordic market, we tried to bring in perspectives that could help The Hindu going forward,” said Henriksson. “Transforming a legacy publisher is about building on core editorial skills, but focuses more on the user’s needs that will help in planning and crafting stories, without some of the restrictions that from time to time comes from the print legacy.”

Before the project started, about half of the content was regularly generated (and published) on their website between 8 in the evening and 8 in the morning. However, this was not in sync with the usage timings for the digital platforms, which showed optimum results between morning 6 am to 1 pm and in evening 6 pm to 10 pm. Through the project, which was supported by Google News Initiative, THG sought to expand their user base and revenue opportunities in proportion to the website’s traffic patterns.

“As a part of Google News Initiative, We are proud to support the Hindu Group’s Digital Transformation journey that gets to the heart of solving for user engagement and experience. That they invested so much time and effort in transforming newsroom culture is a great example for the entire news ecosystem,” said Nitin Sharma, news partner manager, Google India.

Addressing transformational challenges
The biggest challenge faced by THG as a legacy newspaper publisher pivoting to a digital-first news organisation has been setting the vision for the digital business around common currency and metrics as understood by everyone in the company. “It has been difficult for the newsroom to move towards digital-first publishing,” said Pradeep Gairola, VP and business head – Digital. “The entire workflow of content creation is optimised for the newspaper and not the digital audience. The shift is also very difficult as about 90 per cent of our revenue still comes from the legacy part of business.”  

“The delayed supply of stories directly impacts traffic to our websites and apps. Tackling this challenge at the organisational level presented an opportunity to increase the supply of content to our digital products, thereby enhancing the site traffic. Recognising the significance of this endeavour, the Google News Initiative (GNI), which supports projects that foster innovation and growth in the media industry, extended their support to this initiative. Their backing played a crucial role in expanding the scope of the project”.

The project began in March 2023, and the following points acted as transformation guidelines:  

  • A sharp vision that the future is digital
  • A mindset shift to being user-first
  • Measuring the right metrics
  • Cross-departmental contribution and collaboration

The task force consisted of 31 journalists, mostly from the print.

Transformation guidelines
Through the project, The Hindu newsrooms agreed to look beyond page views and the need to understand a broader view of metrics to support good journalism. The data team developed tailored dashboards for each bureau – which help the journalist to track performance of their own stories as well as their bureau.  

Three focus areas for the newsroom that were set by the consultants going forward are:

  • Users: A relentless user focus is the only way forward. Try to separate managing what pages to fill, from managing what journalism to create to give value to readers.
  • Metrics: Introduce daily or weekly evaluation meetings around performance indicators. Use metrics more for learning and looking ahead and not only for judging past performance. Also remember that metrics are really proof of reader behaviours.
  • Transformation: It’s an ongoing process. Two important instruments to use are:
  • Fostering an innovative culture with continuous, structured experiments with feedback to the team, and  
  • Strategic communication to strengthen the vision and show progress that will encourage employees to continue contributing.  

Task force members served as ambassadors for their peers and performed experiments to drive change and learn new skills, and then encouraged them to spread the word in the organisation.  

Transformation through the subscriptions lens
While advertising has accounted for 90 per cent of The Hindu’s digital revenue in the past, THG recognised the need to broaden their business model and make a commitment to subscriptions. However, like most publishers, it realises the biggest challenge it faces in this area is retention.

“We are committed to subscription as a business model. While advertising is very important, but I will be happy if subscriptions contributed to over half the digital revenue pie,” said Navaneeth LV, CEO. “What are we making from ads and subscriptions? How do we measure the number of users, engagement, subscribers? It’s important the newsroom and business teams are on the same page while looking at and measuring these metrics. These things take time to establish in legacy news orgs and are extremely difficult,” he added.

The other major transformational challenge that THG faces is related to culture. “Legacy comes with lots of experience, sometimes as you are changing, that experience could end up becoming baggage in certain aspects of the business. Our challenge is to build our future on the strong foundation of our glorious past, so that the past is not seen as a liability but a great force that shapes the future,” Navaneeth said. He emphasised that the digital and physical organisation have different DNAs. They work at different paces and have different sets of priorities, so how does one then get the entire organisation involved in the business while breaking down silos?  

The third challenge is product.
“How much of our tech is in-house? What do you outsource? Resourcing right and resourcing tight in terms of investments is an ongoing challenge,” Navaneeth said.

Achievements after six months

  • Cross functional conversations and interaction between different teams have increased.  
  • A basic understanding of data has been established.  
  • In terms of deadlines and the story workflow, the newsroom confirmed a shift from adhering to late print deadlines to a more user-oriented discussion around timing and content.
  • After the project, feedback from performance indicators around stories reaching their goals has seen a 61 per cent increase.  
  • User reactions to stories have increased by 21 per cent.
  • Inter-departmental collaboration – tech, sales, analytics, editorial, product etc – have recorded a 23 per cent jump.  
  • Experimentation with publishing time, presentation and storytelling formats witnessed a 13 per cent increase.  

Suresh Nambath, editor, The Hindu, noted: “This project has brought a lot of us outside our comfort zones, and nudged us to put more thought into how we are catering to our readers on a daily basis. As a publication, we have different products and therefore different reader approaches and needs. This project, most importantly, has made the newsroom aware of the varied needs of the readership across geographies and socioeconomic segments.”

The task force journalists, who were predominantly from print, are now being introduced to core digital skills and data tools. “The mindset change that has come about is important for our future. These journalists are now taking the message to other members of their teams,” Nambath added.

“We see a shift in momentum. We also see a lot more ideas and a lot more discussion around our performance coming from inside the newsroom. It is heartening to also see more collaboration.” Navaneeth said the future for THG looks extremely bright. “The print business is robust and will continue to be so. The digital business is growing, and we are just about beginning to discover the potential of the audience outside the markets we are serving, not just in India, but globally,” he said. 

The company recently launched an international edition of its e-paper format, with the aim to help people make sense of India. 

Note: The estimated time of execution for this project was six months. It began in March 2023 and was supported by Google News Initiative.

(By special arrangement with WAN-IFRA. The writer is a multimedia journalist with WAN-IFRA.)