Time for top newspaper publishers to accept the reality

Newspapers in India are not dying and digital is not taking away their share of the pie. What ails the industry, however, is how the top publishers refuse to acknowledge the ensuing downward journey by rejecting the readership survey numbers. Vanita Kohli-Khandekar explains to Dibyajyoti Sarma why this is a worrying trend

23 Dec 2015 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

As we discuss the importance of the Wan-Ifra expo and annual conference, to bring together the Indian newspaper industry on one platform, we inevitably move to the question why Indian newspaper publishers project such a grim picture of the reality. The fact is Indian newspapers, whether English or regional languages, are doing well, and there is no practical threat to their existence.
Yet, industry leaders tend to paint a doomsday picture, as if the industry in India is on the verge of collapse.
The digital media is the usual culprit. The argument is that many more people have stopped reading printed newspapers as they have migrated to digital media, where they get all the information they need within the touchscreen of their smartphones. Again, television has always been a competition.
The proponents of this theory come armed with data, most from the US and some cases, Europe, where, they claim, the change has already happened. Recently, an online news portal ran a story how the future of the newspaper in the world is at the hands of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who recently acquired The Washington Post (The same person who is credited with disrupting the traditional retail ecosystem). 
…In my experience of it, you can be a better journalist in the digital world. Or, you can see it as the danger of being left behind if you didn’t do it. And there’s so much to learn and there will be so much competition in the digital world. So, certainly, the more I spent time editing, the more I felt I had to really get inside the digital world. If I’m going to be wrong about all this and if print is going to be here for a few years it’s fine, because we know how to do that.
Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, in the cover story of the Frontline (the 7 August, 2015 issue) 
The sum and substance of this is that while the ground reality in India is different, we seem to be seeing the industry from the prism of an outside model. Is it possible to have a model exclusively for India, with data and figures that show that exact reality of the Indian newspaper industry?
Of course, there is an ‘Indian model’, with data from agencies like Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) and Indian Readership Survey (IRS). There are also other audits and surveys. It is just that people get excited by news from the US and they react to it, explains Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, media specialist and the author of the book, The Indian Media Business, which has sold over 10,000 copies.
According to Kohli-Khandekar, India is a very heterogeneous and very voluminous market and any model has to build that into itself.
“There are two factors that have kept India in a totally different growth trajectory,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “First is the concept of home delivery, which does not exist in most developed markets. In the US, for example, you have to go to a newsstand and buy a newspaper. The moment you start getting news online, you stop going to the newsstand.” This, of course, is not the case in India. We get the paper every morning, delivered to our doorstep.
The second factor is the fact that in India newspapers are objects of aspiration. “In India, there is a respect for the written word,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “A country which is just over 60% literate, in India, being able to read is itself a sign of achievement.” She illustrates this with an example of an uneducated working class man, and how he would react when he saw his children read a newspaper.
The long and short of this is newspapers will survive in India; it doesn’t matter what happens in the West. Literacy, electricity and penetration of media are some of the benchmarks through which we can gauge the market, says Kohli-Khandekar. “I once did a matrix, which looked at these factors – how literacy, or electricity can affect media penetration, and we found that the media that best works for India is the radio, which is cheap and does not need electricity, so to say,” she says. “Now, however, mobile phones have come on top as the media with biggest penetration, about 80 to 90%.”
In short, newspapers, with its written words and pictures have phenomenal possibilities. 
My bet is television and newspapers in India are not going to die in a long, long time. We can argue in what format it would survive, but print will remain.
Vanita Kohli-Khandekar