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The on-going growth story of Indian newspapers

26 September 2016

The first newspaper in India – the Bengal Gazette, popularly called Hicky’s Gazette – was published in 1780. It was a two-pager in foolscap size. From then on, newspapers grew rapidly in number. In 1861, there were eight Hindi and 11 Urdu newspapers. They mushroomed in the Bombay Presidency, North West Province, Oudh and Central Provinces and the Madras Presidency. Their total readership was not perhaps more than 150,000. Around 1,500 to 3,000 copies of each paper were printed, and the readers were Englishmen working for the East India Company or the government and a few well-off Indian families. From the start, newspapers in India were dedicated to fighting for social causes, rights and civil liberties. The campaign for freedom was carried out through them.

som-sapru-2 Som Nath Sapru

Today, newspapers in India are adopting new methods to present news, and adapting to changing times. Electronic and digital technologies are now posing serious challenges to the print media.

Publishers are producing regional editions and newspapers in the vernacular, backed by the growth of literacy (from 12% literacy rate at the time of Partition, it grew to 75.8% in 2013) which has enhanced readership. Statistics show that people prefer newspapers in their regional languages, which is why vernacular newspaper publishers are bringing out editions from other cities and even mofussil towns where there is sizeable population of particular linguistics groups.

Thanks to the availability of new and fast communication methods that can carry visuals and the printed word with speed and clarity, the print media is finding that it has to do something different. And that difference lies mainly in providing perspective to readers. As a result, print media experts and corporate publishers are quite confident about the continued growth of newspapers in India.

The Indian newspaper industry is expected to grow by 17.9% in the coming five years. In the developed world, of course, the internet has dealt a sizeable blow to traditional newspaper publishing and readership. However, analyses shows that the decline in newspaper readership and circulation in the US and Europe pre-dates the internet era. In other words, the story of the decline of the daily newspaper goes beyond the web. Radio and television must surely shoulder some of the blame; changing lifestyles, too, has impacted newspaper readership regardless of competing media.

A couple of years ago, a sample survey was conducted by a leading media institution in the US about readership of newspapers over the years and the results displayed a declining trend:

Question asked: Did you read a newspaper yesterday? Total 80% said yes in 1961; 58% in 1999; and only 45% in 2014.

The enduring strength of newspapers is local coverage. The reality is that metro city newspapers have more ‘feet on the ground’ than competing news websites. Of late, newspaper managers are translating their local strength onto their websites as well. A journalist who recently conducted a survey of over 2000 readers in metro cities shared with the author one question and its response:

Question: What is the main reason you subscribe to local newspaper of your choice? Answers varied: National and international news (14%), columnists (4%), habit (14%), job openings (6%), obituaries/ local news (4%), matrimonial (5%), and others (4%).

Many newspapers are trying to attract younger readers by including more youth-oriented entertainment and lifestyle subjects more relevant to people's daily lives than international affairs and politics (The Times of India and Hindustan Times are good examples). They are trying to create new businesses on- and off-line, besides investing in conclaves and conferences which are socially relevant.

In the early 1990s, many newspaper establishments upgraded technology, and computers were installed even by regional newspapers published from mofussil towns. This was followed by the Internet in 1995. In the past five years there has been a total change of scenario in technology and means for the transmission of text and visuals thanks to smartphones, tablets, etc. Newspapers are creating new methods of disseminating news and other material through TV stations, websites and radio stations to give their target audience information as it happens 24x7, and at cost effective prices. All leading Indian newspapers have their own websites and major media houses such as The Times of India, Anandabazar Patrika, India Today, The Hindu, Dainik Bhaskar, Sakshi and Malayala Manorama have their own TV channels.

The other point is the commercial aspect. There is constant conflict between newspaper circulation, readership and advertising. The Government of India is one of the largest advertisers in the country and its standard criterion for the release of a newspaper advertisement is the circulation figures of that paper. Benchmarks show that on average, newspapers are left with around a third of their circulation revenue after costs are deducted. Subscription rates of any newspaper are astonishingly low compared with figures for Western countries. Typically, as much as 70% of a newspaper’s revenue comes from sale of advertising space and only about 20% is from subscription and street sales. If circulation is not

the answer to the newspaper industry’s profitability, obviously advertising is, and newspaper advertising rates have traditionally been based on total readership, rather than circulation alone. The newspaper industry found gold in the concept of shared readership, and began to measure total newspaper readership as an adjunct to circulation – and thus cashed in on government advertising.

The results of a recent study by the School of Management Studies, Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology, Allahabad, revealed “that the future of newspapers is safe and robust”. The strategic thinking of newspaper publishers for upgrading technology and competence has boosted the Indian newspaper industry’s growth. Over the past five years there has been a steady growth of 16% in newspaper circulation in Asia; India showed a growth of 7.2% during the period.

Hindi newspapers dominate the market with a total circulation of more than 15 million copies a day, followed by English newspapers with over 9 million copies. Among regional languages, Marathi newspapers sell 5.4 million copies a day, followed by Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada, Gurumukhi and Oriya. Almost all the regional language newspapers have online editions.

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