Government ads must be shared by everyone

The economics of the smaller Indian language newspapers is clear and simple. They must get a fair share of government ads, which are now being hogged by multi-edition big-time English dailies. So says, Paresh Nath, publisher and editor-in-chief of Delhi Press Group, and the president of the Indian Languages Newspapers Association (ILNA) explains to Dibyajyoti Sarma and Rahul Kumar of PrintWeek India the reality of the situation and what needs to be done at his Jhandewalan office.

01 Oct 2014 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma & Rahul Kumar

 There is something about publishing a newspaper. Once you have started it, you cannot stop, even if you are running losses. “I know several publishers who can very easily get into other profit-making businesses,” says Paresh Nath, in the middle of our conversation, “but they won’t stop publishing newspaper.” He offers a food analogy. A variant of McDonald burgers is now quite cheap, but yet people won’t stop eating the pakodas from the roadside vendor. “The same way, while we are being dominated by the big newspapers, the smaller ones will still be there because they offer local flavour and cover local issues,” he says.

This optimism soon turns into misgivings about the future, as Nath shares with us the works of the Indian Languages Newspapers Association (ILNA) and the politics of government advertisements as a source of revenue.

The association has been constantly pursuing the central government to make distribution of government advertisements, fair and rational. “While other associations are saying that ad rates should be increased, we do not have complaints about the rates fixed by Directorate of Advertisement and Visual Publicity (DAVP) per se. All we have asked them is to distribute the ads evenly,” says Nath.

The reality is this: An English language newspaper in Delhi would get about 3,000 releases in a year, about two to three lakh square centimetre of ad space, while a small newspaper would get just three or four ads. “Irrespective of the rates DAVP offers, our contention is that government ads should be available to every newspaper, which are empanelled with DAVP. The directorate has no rights to distinguish between one empanelled newspaper and another. Otherwise, it should do away with empanelment altogether,” he says.

No, Nath isn’t playing a victim here, but is asking for the rights of the newspapers, big or small. “We are doing whatever is required by DAVP. If they want copies of all our issues, we supply the copies. We give audited figures of circulation. They fix a rate according to the circulation. We accept it,” says Nath, whose organisation looks after the interest of small and medium-sized local-language newspapers published from India. “After all this, in a year, they give one newspaper two or three ads, and to another one 2,000 ads. That is unfair.”

According to DAVP formula, a newspaper gets ad revenues according to circulation. “If you are giving a 200 sq/cm ad to a big English newspaper, based on circulation, the cost will be huge. The same advertisement, if you are giving to a very small publication, with a circulation of say, only 8,000, the cost will be substantially less. So, what’s the problem? Asks Nath, adding that this has been the main concern of ILNA. “Though we have made some impact on the issue, we are not satisfied yet.”

He gives an example. On Independence Day, a big English daily received 25 insertions, in broadsheet size and in colour, but most newspapers across the country did not even get one. “How can you justify this? May be the minister is seeing only the English paper, but that’s his problem. Our readers and publishers live in all corners of India,” he says. “If a paper publishes 1,000 copies and it is empanelled for 1000 copies, DAVP should distribute the ads accordingly. This is our case.”

On this, currently, ILNA has been fighting with the central government. “States are not on our radar yet, as we do not have the required data. We have the data for the centre, and we want DAVP to adopt a policy which is more conducive to small language publications,” Nath says.

Recently, Nath and other ILNA office-bearers met minister of information and broadcasting Prakash Javadekar. “Although Javadekar agreed that English newspapers are getting more ads, he told us that he has reduced their share from 35% to 25% of the total amount. This is a victory for us,” says Nath.

But ILNA’s struggle to get government ads for smaller newspapers is far from over. This is because government ads do not come from DAVP alone. A large number of government ads are issued without DAVP intervention, directly from the departments or the states or PSUs, and even the local bodies, which are not bound by DAVP. However, for convenience, everyone now follow DAVP determined rates.

The contention is this, and Nath doesn’t mince his words, “I don’t mind if they don’t give any ads to anyone, but don’t deprive one and favour another.”

The standard argument from the government side is that smaller newspapers do not show correct circulation figures. Nath offers a counter-argument: “If I give you a paper which is almost free to me, wouldn’t you read it?” He says big English newspapers in India are free to the publishers. How? The economy is simple, Nath explains: “One page of government ad will give a newspaper enough revenue to buy newsprint for five broadsheet pages. If you get eight pages of government ads, you can print a 40 page newspaper at the cost of the government.” This changes the whole economics. “A 40-page paper is sold for Rs 4. And, if a buyer is getting back Rs 2 on the waste value of the paper, he would definitely go for it. So, the circulation goes up,” he says.

This is one of the reasons why English newspapers are cheaper in India. “Government ads are not just the backbone; they are the body of the Indian newspaper industry. And, this is spoiling the print media in the country,” Nath says.

He is also concerned how national English dailies are now being published from smaller centres. He says nowhere in the world one single paper has so many editions. This is not an organic growth. He says, “Ideally, you should have a newspaper that covers your city, edited by a person who is from your city. You don’t want a national daily, because your local paper will contain national and international news too.” But the prevailing situation is that these multi-edition papers are killing the smaller ones.

Are government ads really the key to the problem? According to Nath, it is 80% of the problem. “Before 1990s, English newspapers hardly printed government ads. Then they started doing it and realised that it is the easiest way to multiply. In an English daily published from Delhi, you will see ads from places like Jaipur and Kolkata. How is that possible? A local tender from another city should not appear in a Delhi newspaper. There must be a scam going on somewhere. This ad should have gone to a local newspaper. But it doesn’t happen. The money is taken away by a bigger paper and the ad is printed on all its editions,” Nath argues.

Are there any guidelines for DAVP to see that this kind of discrimination does not take place? Nath’s answer is that of hopeless resignation: “They have not been able to understand the implications. And, we haven’t been able to persuade them fully.”

Besides fighting for government ads, ILNA also wants reforms in the workings of Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI). The association also finds that the postal authorities are not being fair to the newspapers. “They say it is a costly business for India Post to transport newspapers. But my argument is if the government can spend so much money on education, it can bear the cost of transporting newspapers. The postal authorities think they are doing us a favour, but it is their constitutional duty,” Nath says.

ILNA was established in 1941, with the express plan of promotion and development of newspapers/periodicals in Indian languages, especially small and medium-sized titles. Currently, the organisation has 800 members. It comprises an executive committee of 45 members, headed by a president. In some states, it also has state committees.

According to Nath, ILNA firmly believes that the real progress of a society is possible only though local languages. “In India, we are currently witnessing a duality of language use. A person studies English but speaks the local language. So, we have large number of Indians who can read English but cannot understand it fully and can understand the local language but cannot read it.”

It is not just the printed word, but also the sense behind the printed word that is important. Therefore, localised content is paramount. Nath gives the example of Channel [V] and MTV, where the entire English content has been replaced by Hindi. “Newspapers are not just carriers of news, but also thought. Newspapers give you wisdom. But, if the papers are not independent, if they have to survive only on government support, they wouldn’t be able to do what they are supposed to do,” Nath says. This is where ILNA comes into the picture, to support these small publications.

Any publication can be an ILNA member as long as it is registered and supply its copies to the organisation. Apart from sharing problems and airing grievances, Nath says, the members share what is going around. “There is big network with people from various parts of the country conversing together,” he says.

Now, the important question, can a small paper look beyond the government ads for its survival and success? It is possible, Nath says. He gives the example of an afternoon daily in Madhya Pradesh and Sri Ganganagar Rajasthan, which earn revenue from ads from local traders and are doing very well.

In theory, increased cover price can also become a source of revenue. Nath gives the example of one Delhi Press publication, Sarita. It is now sold at Rs 35 per copy. When it was launched in 1945, it was priced at Rs 1, whereas, according to the market scenario of the time, it should have been an aana (one sixteenth of a rupee). “We could do it because there was a demand. Readers were ready to pay for it,” he says. These days, however, the biggest problem for increasing the cover price is the competition from those who have government advertising an additional source of revenue. If someone else is offering a similar product at a lower price, nobody would buy the higher-priced product.

 At this, Nath returns to his pet peeve, the issue of government ads. “Our media is in a chain put up by the government,” he says ruefully.

 Finally, Nath is ambivalent about the future. It looks disturbing and difficult, and yet, there is hope. “If we can tap the growing educated population of the country into buying local language newspapers, there is nothing like it,” he says, adding that anything is possible. The big papers may swallow the smaller ones. The smaller once may also drown the big papers. “If government ads become more rational and transparent, so to say, equal, newspapers from smaller places will have a great future,” he signs off.