Spotlight: Newspaper industry troubles and book problems

Dibyajyoti Sarma looks at how publishing sector is putting up a brave fight to stay relevant despite insurmountable odds.

09 Mar 2022 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma

There is hope yet for the printed book

The Morning Context (a research and media company), published a story on 2 March about the Grand Old Lady of Borbunder. It said, “The Times Group’s Samir and Vineet Jain have decided to part ways”. If the news is true, this means a split on one of India’s oldest and largest media houses. According to market estimates, the size of the media behemoth is Rs 10,000-crore with profits in the Rs 500-crore range. The clash between the Jain brothers is rooted in disagreements over how BCCL/Times Group should be run and where the buck stops.

When PrintWeek spoke to a senior person in The Times of India, he said, the split will have a huge impact on the newspaper business which has taken a huge hit during the past two years.

The Indian newspaper business indeed faced an unprecedented crisis when the country went into a lockdown in March 2020. Circulation fell drastically, so did ad revenue. The FICCI EY Report on Indian M&E industry 2021 showed that ad revenue of print came down from Rs 206-billion in 2019 to Rs 122-billion in 2020.

According to a report by the ratings agency, Crisil, published in July 2021, the revenue for print media industry in FY2020 was Rs 31,000-crore, split 70:30 between advertisement and subscriptions. It declined 40% during the pandemic, and was expected to reach Rs 24,000-25,000-crore in FY22.

Things improved significantly in Q3 FY22, especially in ad revenues. According to a report by TAM Media Research, the print industry already recovered 82% of the pre-Covid levels and posted an 18% drop in ad volumes in 2021, as opposed to 2019.

Sudhir Agarwal, managing director, DB Corp, said, “We are seeing renewed vigour in advertising revenues, with new categories starting to look towards print for their ad spend, coupled with select traditional categories like real estate, education, jewellery that have bounced back to pre-Covid levels.”

Print vs digital

The Budget estimates for 2022-23 indicate that the government will spend Rs 104,278-crore in the next 12 months on education. That’s the good news. The not so news from the point of view of print is, a large proportion of the budget will be invested in digital university, developing eContent for schools and an educational TV channel scheme (from 12 to 200 channels). The book publishing industry and print industry have not responded to this pro-digital drive, thus far.

However, education experts and teachers say, “this excessive dependence on digital learning is misplaced, and there is enormous learning loss.” The Annual School Education Report (ASER) speaks of the huge gap between government and private school-going students adopting digital means and how this gap has increased in the past two years.

Two things which interest the print industry are: According to the ASER report, even though availability of smartphones increased from 36.5% in 2018 to 67.6% in 2021, more children in private schools had smartphones at home (79%) compared to government school going children (63.7%).

The ASER report pointed out that there was a 40% increase in the number of school-going children taking private tuitions during the pandemic. The virtual learning method proved inadequate.

The report was conducted in rural areas of 581 districts across 25 states and three union territories between September and October. Totally 76,706 households, 7,299 schools in 17,184 villages were covered in the survey.

Lido Learning headed by Ronnie Screwvala is in the news. For bhakts of digital education, the shutting down of the edtech startup should be a warning. Hundreds of employees in Bengaluru and Noida, plus vendors complained about not getting salaries for nearly two months as well as delayed payments on professional networking platforms and social media. In addition, it has left tutors, parents and students in the lurch.

Founded in 2019, Lido Learning provides small-group online tutoring to kindergarten to grade 12 students. It offers classes in maths, science, coding and English. A spokesperson said the money “will fuel its expansion plans in India as well as expand its global footprint.” There was a huge amount of chat about Lido’s entry into the US and Canada with its flagship coding programme using the ‘pair learning’ methodology. This methodology ensures two students per teacher “to facilitate faster learning, deeper interactions, and real-time problem-solving.”

Plans were also in place to launch in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia in early 2022, in addition to its existing Middle-Eastern, American, and Canadian operations. That’s how Lido Learning raised about USD 27.3-million from investors such as Alibaba-backed BACE Ventures, Picus Capital, and nine Unicorns along with entrepreneurs like Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Mukesh Bansal, Anupam Mittal and Ananth Narayanan.

One of the curious things about the new forms of educational system is the short circuiting of the process. Which is why when the buck stops, the value disappears and the whole system comes tumbling down.

Books in trouble?

Meanwhile 60-70 Marathi book publishers and four book shops have downed shutters in Maharashtra. The reason: the downturn in the book market due to schools being shut down during the pandemic. When PrintWeek had conducted a survey in 2015-16, the state of Maharashtra boasted of 12,000 libraries and one and half lakh schools. These constitute a captive audience for printed books. The Rs 90-crore book publishing business was reduced to Rs 7-crore during the Covid months. One publisher, who spoke to PrintWeek, said, “In addition to Covid, there is the shift in book purchase due to eBooks and the social media boom. In addition, publishers in Maharashtra have been impacted by the piracy menace.”

Rajiv Barve, who helms the Akhil Bharatiya Prakashak Sangh, said, “We have issued complaints to the police and other authorities about this menace. But thus far, there has been zero progress.”

In the previous issue of PrintWeek, Ananth Padmanabhan of HarperCollins India, said, “There are probably more than 5,000 bookstores selling educational books (which make up 85-90% of the publishing industry in India) between school, academic, legal medical, and indeed stationery stores that also sell some children's activity books. But India needs bookshops — between chains and independents — to sell trade and general books. For comparison, the UK has about 1,000 bookshops for a population of 68-69-mn. Imagine our country, all the major airports, all the major train stations, the main cities and the satellite cities. And within our metropolitan cities too there really aren't enough bookshops to cater to readers.”

The reality is depressing. A recent report from Maharashtra looks at the network of 12,489 public libraries in western state. But due to government apathy most of these public libraries are in abysmal condition. As a result, more than 21,613 employees have not received their salaries on time; plus, book buying budgets have been slashed. In Nagpur zilla, out of the 234 libraries, approximately 25 centres have shut down in the past five years. Imagine if this is transpiring in one of the most progressive states in the country where the essence of the educational philosophy of Mahatma Phule was ‘education is a human right'.

But everything is not a sob story. For example, this month, celebrated Hindi publisher, Rajkamal Prakashan Samuh completed 75 years of its existence. And, it is looking towards the next generation to take the legacy forward. In an event to celebrate the foundation day, Ashok Maheshwari, MD, Rajkamal Prakashan, said, “We will strive to put forward our books to be available in several local languages. Also, we’ll expedite our processes to make available the best of Hindi works as part of our contribution to satiate curiosity and needs of the youth; in the quest of attaining knowledge. We further aim to make best use of ever evolving modern technology to maximise our reach to potential readers.”

All is not lost for books. A great example of this was seen when readers drove the community's efforts to buy, stock, and read books published by Westland, after its parent company, Amazon, announced the closure of the publication house on 1 February, 2022. There was an unprecedented show of support for the authors whose books were about to be pulped. While individual readers scrambled to pick up their favourite titles, different independent bookshops also announced that they have stocked up on Westland titles before they disappear from the market. There is hope yet for the printed book.

Also read: Books are very popular in India: Ananth Padmanabhan of HarperCollins