"We got to get used to lesser margins," says Purnendu Sen

Purnendu Sen, the newspaper print guru, unravels how small invest-ments are necessary for improved performance to tackle the predicted gloom and doom in the newspaper segment.

08 Sep 2013 | By Noel D'Cunha & Rushikesh Aravkar

PrintWeek India (PWI): In a scenario where money is tight and revenues are declining, what kind of investments should newspapers do to improve their performance?
Purnendu Sen (PS): I do agree that the media in general, and print, in particular, is going through some amount of hardship, particularly with the current rupee value situation and its impact on the newsprint market. But it is my firm belief that, in order to keep improving, we have to find new avenues and to make new things as the new norm, we should continue to undertake some kind of investment to improve our performance. It may not necessarily be hefty investments.
PWI: Can I ask, how? And what?
PS: There are a number of ways one can do it; improvising the electrical system to make it more power efficient, adding an autopaster to save newsprint as well as time, upgradation or implementation of pneumatic systems wherever necessary, etc. There are many operations on the shopfloor that are done manually. Adding auto registration or cut-off controls and automating your process can also improve your performance. Let me tell you, it does not cost you a fortune, but it does improve your performance thereby cutting cost and improving your bottom line.
PWI: What about the small printers at the bottom of the pyramid?
PS: In remote parts of India, publishers are still using butter paper. On the PrintWeek India Awards Jury Day, we saw some newspaper samples that used butter paper. This is the first step; I think it is time now that we get rid of butter paper. This is no more a luxury; it is a survival cost. Some people call it minimum hygiene factor.
In your cost budget, allocate some amount to improving efficiencies. This applies to everyone, whether you are a national or regional player, small or large circulation, etc. There’s a need for investment in every sphere. Plus investment is a continuous process. Today it is very easy to say that big players are very rich and can afford investments but even for these big players, it started in a humble manner, and they have kept their objectives clear – we need to keep upgrading to be a leader. And technology is one of the tools. So, there is tremendous scope for improving performance without investing hugely.
PWI: Do you believe that the ink consumption varies depending on the type of newsprint used?
PS: In the printing world, particularly newspaper, the first thing that is done when there is anything wrong is, blame the ink maker. Every machine minder has learnt this very well. However, it is not so. Ink is a product of science, from pigments, resins, oils, vehicles to additives, each component is a science by itself. Not only with different grade of newsprint, but different kinds of machines, environments, inputs: fount solutions, water, plates, you have different specialties of ink.
PWI: So, printers should talk to ink manufacturers?
PS: Yes, as a customer one has to demand what we want. Printer is in the driver’s seat. We did it so many years back at The Times of India. Initially, it was tough. You could not hold a newspaper without dirtying your hands. The rub resistance was very poor. Today we have improved a lot.  Even with the weather condition the ink formulation has to be checked. Speed of the machine, its design – common impression cylinder, back to back construction, satellite, it all matters; whether ink is for gravity or against gravity when it flows onto the cylinders. There are many factors.
PWI:  It has been a long journey.
PS:  I must congratulate all the ink makers in India. They have done a splendid job, and they are continuously trying to improve.
PWI: What about innovations?
PS: When it comes to innovations in printing, I believe whatever we have innovated over years, needs to be implemented by the lower-level  publications (in terms of size, revenue).
PWI: Do you think for the newspaper to grow should it be piggy-backing on another technology such as internet or augmented reality?
PS: I liked the concept of augmented reality. However, augmented reality is that – Microsoft is in trouble; augmented reality is also that Blackberry is in trouble. Augmented reality is also that Nokia is in trouble. I have always held this belief that one must not compare something with the one that has survived for centuries.
However, I agree that only with print, no company is going to survive but without print no other platform will survive. It has to be a game of combinations. When you are going to an advertiser, you have to say that you are present on all platforms. It is not who replaces who; the presence of all is required. Why do you think Amazon bought Washington Post? I think publishers should not ignore print as well as digital platforms. Do not draw lines so easily.
PWI: There are predictions of India going the path of US newspapers in terms of decline in circulation, advertising, and disinvestment in print. Do you believe Indian industry will follow the same curve? What do you think are the differences in India and US?
PS: I have read newspaper reports saying, Internet population in India is 74-mn, it’s standing third in the list, and so we are moving closer to the USA as if everything happening is good for life. Then we also read INMA’s president say Americans have to learn innovation from Indian newspapers.
PWI: What is your view about this?
PS: You are comparing a very mature market of the USA with a market like India, where there is only 20-24% penetration. And also the population of India; its sheer size and demography of the country are the differentiators. I don’t think it is comparable. In addition, they don’t have so many languages. When I look at the decline of the American newspaper industry, I always think that they were skimming the profit rather than investing in colour at the opportune time. That was a mistake. 
PWI: Why?
PS: Perhaps the ownership pattern also matters. According to the ownership pattern in India, 98% companies are owned by individuals, not limited companies. Dynamics of the industry and economics do not say we will follow the US.
PWI: Do you think that there is relevance for short-runs in the newspaper segment and hence digital will play a role in India?
PS: Short runs are already present in India. There are many editions running at 20,000 to 50,000 quantities. I think the newspaper has to remain within the web offset technology, though integration with the digital is possible. Tomorrow, there may be a digital press, which could produce 1,00,000 copies in one night, then I will say yes digital is relevant for newspaper printing in India. But for that, the digital press has to travel a long journey. And again, ink and cost per copy are crucial factors.
PWI: Your assessment about inkjet?
PS: Inkjet holds a big potential. Apart from the head, its life and power consumption, inkjet inks are not very costly, but it does not compare it with conventional inks. It could be a good interface to the conventional litho offering. Multi pages may run on local web, one of it can be in digital. For example, the bulk will be printed on a web offset, but you can also target a particular section using a digitally printed section. There are digital companies like Kodak, Oce, among other who either have or are busy developing inkjet technologies that merge digital with offset. But of its own, it won’t be able to replace web offset, given the cost of the variables in ink cost. Coldset inks constitute 3-5% of the cost of producing newspapers while it’s 10-12% with heatset. Can inkjet compare against such costs? I think, digital still has miles to go.
PWI: What is your advice for newspaper printers?
PS: Our conviction, our belief has to be that it is an industry of centuries, and it will survive. Unless this conviction is there we will sing a song of obituary. The publishers must get convinced that they will survive. Psychology is the big factor. Firstly, they will have to continue to invest, however small they may be and innovate. Secondly, they have to have a mixed bag of national and regional languages editions and they should look out for huge penetration. Dainik Bhaskar is an excellent example of how it has become India’s number one circulated paper. 
PWI: Your view on editorial management?
PS: I wonder why we are not optimising our editorial content by having integrated newsroom. All the newspapers have a presence on multiple platforms such as the Internet, television, radio, etc. The primary focus has to be on developing integrated newsroom and make softer investments in other areas.        
PWI: And finally the bane of our industry: shrinking margins.
PS: We got to get used to lesser margins. It is known that we were used to high margins, but we will not make those high margins anymore; because the advertising market is fragmented now. Those were the days of monopoly. 
That said, recent news of Amazon’s boss investing in Washington Post and a co-founder of Facebook recently buying the New Republic magazine, offer a glimpse that newspaper and magazines will have a role to play. A combination of niche applications and good strategies, plus the increasing number of pay walls in the Internet-based products, will ensure that newspapers are here to stay.