Writing Skills, through a Utilitarian Lens. And the Changing Economics of Journalism.

posted Jul 20, 2018, 11:14 PM by Prashant Bhattacharji   [ updated Jul 20, 2018, 11:16 PM ]
Over the years, I discovered a specific use case for writing skills which potentially has tangible ROI to it. Now, I went to a school, where everyone had a very direct usecase for education: it was an extremely efficient assembly line for techno-managerial and business related careers. Like many of the good ICSE schools, the standard of English was fine, but there was no humanities section; in fact I probably didn’t even know at the time that non-STEM or non-Commerce subjects existed at the grade 11-12 level. Let alone humanities, most people I knew (from school and from college) didn’t even have a second language in grade 11-12. 

Add to this a STEM education after which everything subconsciously clicks into place in terms of worst case complexity or efficiency or cost-benefit analysis. Everybody around me understood the general value of good communication and writing skills, but writing skills were seen in a relatively abstract light, not direct money spinners as knowledge of finance, law, programming or circuit design.
But in the last couple of years I found a new and direct kind of value to it. I wanted to experiment with ways to build up traffic to my site, which itself was an ever-going experiment of sorts. (the real planned, polished and formal site never really took off and the test portal ended up pulling all the traffic, but that’s a different story). I did not have any VC funds for marketing simply because I didn’t even have a clear agenda to know what to ask VCs for. And there were various components of my portal best kept away from too much publicity in any case. 

That is when I discovered the power of actually writing in newsportals or online-magazine-kind-of-places. I submitted a whole bunch of data-tables as well as well as pieces to places like News Minute, FirstPost, Swarajya, ORF, OpIndia, Scroll, Quint, DNA, IE, ToI as well as regular news outlets like Times Of India, HT etc. Some of them got picked up and published. My condition was very simple: I don’t care whether it goes or not into the print edition, I don’t care whether I’m marked as the author on the piece, my inputs can just be embedded within your article; all I want is the relevant backlinks to my portal, NOT to be stripped off. I quickly figured that many of these houses (like TOI, HT) simply do not want to send links to other sites so I stopped dealing with them after the very first instance.
This form of “writing-driven-marketing” worked and the site pulls in between a quarter to half million unique pageviews in most of the months (not much was done on the site in 2017). Of course, these numbers sound fancier than what they are, because directly monetizing digital content in India, is next to impossible, and in general the max you can generate directly out of this much traffic is a revenue stream which takes care of your monthy bills and expenenses even if you choose to do nothing at all for a bit, but that’s another topic.

I guess the bigger missing piece in the economics of digital journalism jigsaw will show up, when more and more people discover, that writing for free (for general PR or publicity or to embed a link or video) translates into greater monetary gains than writing professionally. Out of curiosity, I’ve often enquired about the rates which media houses pay. The numbers are generally so dismal that it’s simply not worth the hassle to fill up the forms required to claim those amounts. I can think of at least a few more people who write articles and submit them to these portals in the same way as I do.

This will be excellent for owners of digital media portals as well as enterprising writers or journalists who take the trouble of setting up their own portal, and setup some kind of crowdsourcing process, and collate content created almost for free, without having to bear the expenses of a payroll. But this tsunami of gigization and crowdsourcing will also erase the more traditional roles of structured jobs related to print media or writing. There will invariably be problematic consequences as well, as digital content will see less of news and more of embedded self-promotional activities, even if the self-promotion happens in a subtle way. I’d also wager that current “digital outlets” with less than a million monthly unique pageviews *per employee on their payroll* are simply not sustainable unless they have an unremitting flow of funds from political or corporate players, which see this as an investment. 

The likes of Skype, Hangouts and other video conferencing and cloud based office-productivity tools, were a direct competitor to the airline industry, as the need for flying for business meetings, saw a sharp drop. Similarly, a modern day news business, is in the general quest for eyeballs, and practically every site out there, from a porn site to one with cat videos, is a competitor. How all of this will play out, specially in India, will be interesting to see, 10 years from now.