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Jan. 13, 2020, 11 a.m.

In India, news aggregator apps are struggling to find a path to sustainability

“This category is all about the next round of funding. None have a sustainable business model.”

Three years after venture capital cash led to a round of app releases, celebrity endorsements, and rapid customer acquisition, some of the major news aggregation apps in India are going through a period of reckoning.

Why? The promise of digital advertising at scale hasn’t delivered, user consumption patterns have shifted to video, and new apps such as TikTok, Helo and ShareChat are increasing the competition for attention and advertising. And aggregators are increasingly in conflict with the companies that supply much of their content — news publishers.

Take two aggregators: DailyHunt and Inshorts. They’re among the biggest players in the Indian news aggregator space; DailyHunt has been downloaded more than 100 million downloads on Google Play, Inshorts over 10 million. DailyHunt serves content in 14 Indian languages, Inshorts in English and Hindi. Both businesses still need to validate their revenue models, according to Sajith Pai, director of Blume Ventures, which invests in early-stage technology startups.

“Monetization has been slow in coming by,” Pai said. “If they don’t begin monetizing in the next two-three years, they will be in trouble.”

Like publishers, news aggregators have pivoted multiple times in the past few years — embracing regional Indian languages and video. But aggregators’ antagonistic relationship with publishers remains a roadblock. As aggregators grew in users, many big publishers were promised minimum guarantee fees in return for sharing and hosting content on aggregator apps.

According to Sandeep Amar, founder of the digital consultancy Publishers Digital Lab, publishers were initially paid between INR500,000 to INR600,000 per month (around $7,000-$8,000 U.S.) to host their content on DailyHunt. Now, “publishers are taking their content off such platforms,” Amar said.

Malayala Manorama was one of the first big publishers to exit DailyHunt in 2017 because of changes in payment terms. “We don’t publish on aggregators anymore. Earlier, the scenario was different. Aggregators started changing the terms of payment,” said Boby Paul, general manager of marketing at Malayala Manorama, the country’s biggest Indian-language publisher.

“Today, revenue share agreements aren’t working,” said Chitti Pantulu, the editor of NewsPlus, another Indian news aggregation app. “[Many] aggregators show user numbers to increase valuation and raise investment to further increase user numbers. The advertising market isn’t growing at the same pace. It’s a vicious circle.”

Pantulu says publishers — most of which make little digital revenue — are giving content away in the hope that they can make money through ad sales or some other form of revenue share agreements. Unlike DailyHunt and Inshorts, which host content on their apps, NewsPlus directs traffic to publisher websites, the way Google or Facebook typically do.

The news aggregation space has been a bloodbath in India, Pai says. In the last two years, many firms have laid off engineering and sales teams as they struggle to pivot and find profitability. Many of the news aggregators that came to India in 2015 or 2016 — such as UC Browser, NewsDog, and News Republic — have stopped reporting user and pageview numbers.

“User acquisition costs are really high. While the number of users and advertisers is growing, it isn’t growing fast enough,” Pai said. Slow growth in advertising, coupled with an increase in the number of apps vying for the limited advertising pie, hasn’t helped the category.

The other challenge is that growth is skewed between languages. User numbers are growing in vernacular languages (India has 22 official regional languages) — but advertisers aren’t biting. “Even after the video push, advertisers haven’t moved beyond English and Hindi,” said Paul.

“Investors have realized that there is no money in digital media,” one former employee of a leading Indian news aggregator told me. “Most investors haven’t invested again and are trying to consolidate their investments.”

While that may be the case, DailyHunt recently raised $25 million in Series F funding and is looking to raise more. “DailyHunt can raise money because they are the only ones left and are too big to fail,” Amar said.

“This category is all about the next round of funding. None have a sustainable business model,” said Vivek Durai, who tracks private investments in India.

Amar said key metrics frequently change before each round of investments: “Like the e-commerce industry kept changing metrics to show growth, from Gross Merchandise Value (GMV) to gross margin to the size of the marketplace, news aggregators show numbers that investors ask for and that keeps changing.”

“The new story in the news aggregator space is vernacular content and experimenting with video/web series, social, e-commerce, financial services, etc., because ads revenues are not coming,” said Durai. “The big guys in the space are realizing that scale is useless.”

With no sustainable business model in sight, DailyHunt and Inshorts are experimenting with new revenue streams, including selling financial services to users, according to multiple current and former employees. “They probably hope there is a business model to be found,” Paul said.

Cyril Sam is a news-tech researcher and a consultant based in New Delhi, India. A version of this piece originally ran on Splice, and it’s published here under a Creative Commons license.

Photo by Stefano Ravalli used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 13, 2020, 11 a.m.
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