The future of newspapers in India

In a democracy, the role of media has prime responsibility to educate, inform, guide and make society aware of the issues. India the largest democracy in the world, and as such, the constant, continuous and ever-evolving media has always played a lead role in propagating the most important and imperative issues of society in general, besides educating people, which is more than 1.2 billion, about their rights enshrined in the constitution.

24 Dec 2019 | By PrintWeek Team

The first Indian newspaper was published in 1780 — the Bengal Gazette, popularly known as Hicky’s Gazette

The newspaper has a storied history in India. The first Indian newspaper was published in 1780 — the Bengal Gazette, popularly known as Hicky’s Gazette. It was a two pager in foolscap size.

The growth of newspapers in India was quick. In 1861, there were eight Hindi and 11 Urdu newspapers. By 1870, newspapers in Bombay Presidency, North West Province, the then Oudh and Central Provinces, besides Madras Presidency, had a total readership of more than 1,50,000. All these newspapers were printed in the vicinity of 1,500 to 3,000 copies each and were patronised by Englishmen working for the East India Company or the government and few well-off Indian families.

India’s advocacy of social reforms and then the freedom struggle movement and the public awareness of similar other issues were propagated by the newspapers. From day one, newspapers in India were dedicated to societal cause and fighting for rights and civil liberties of the citizens. In short, newspapers in India gained esteem during the freedom struggle and thereafter as well.

Today, existing values of media governed by electronic and digital technology is undoubtedly posing a big challenge to print media, and newspapers in particular. The Indian newspapers are going through tremendous technology transformation and are adapting methods and means to fight electronic media in the matter of news presentation and physical deliverance of the newspaper each day to the reader.

There is an amazing confidence with which newspaper publishers in India have put all their might and stakes in the publishing of regional editions and regional language versions of their newspapers — reason being constant and continuous growth of literacy in India which has enhanced readership of the newspapers and other print media materials.

Because of liberalisation and globalisation in all fields of media and introduction of new medium of communications with speed which can carry visuals and printed word with equal speed and clarity, this new technology and all the time competition from electronic media has driven newspapers and even news magazines to adapt new technologies with enhanced professional outlook and sensitivity to the present day market forces.

Print media has to reach its readership with almost matching speed and authenticity of news. This competition and adaptation of new technologies has undoubtedly given a big boost to stability and further growth of the newspapers and all other kinds of print media. Print media experts and corporate publishers are quite confident about further growth of newspapers in India.

On the other hand, there is a general and apprehensive view, in the western countries, that the newspaper industry has been badly mauled by the internet, which has created a sizeable dent to traditional newspaper publishing and readership.

The data has been troubling for a long time, and gets more convincing each day. A lot of analyses gloss over the data which demonstrates that the decline in newspaper readership and circulation in the US and Europe easily pre-dates the internet era. The story of the decline of the daily newspaper goes beyond the web.

On the other hand, the Indian newspaper industry is vibrant and on the growth path and is expected to grow by 17.9% in the next five years time.

Couple of years back, a sample survey was conducted by a leading media institution in the US about the readership of newspapers over the years and the results displayed a declining trend.

The question was: Did you read a newspaper yesterday?

1961: 80% yes            

1999: 58% yes            

2014: 45% yes           

2018: 27% yes          

The enduring strength of newspapers is their local coverage, from local news to financial to sports and to entertainment. The reality is that metro city newspapers have more “feet on the ground” than any of the competing news web sites. Of late, the smartest newspaper managers are translating their local strength onto their websites as well.

Recently, an enthusiastic journalist conducted a survey in metro cities of India. In an interaction, with him he told me that he had circulated a questionnaire to more than 2,000 readers as under:

What is the main reason you subscribe to local newspaper of your choice?

These were the responses he received.

National and international news: 14%

Columnists: 4%

Habit: 14%

Job openings: 6%

Obituaries/ local news, etc: 4%                        

Matrimonial: 5%

Other: 4%

Lately, it is observed in the US and Europe that “the most useful bit of the media is disappearing. It could be cause for concern, but not for panic.”

This is an essentially optimistic view. The usefulness of the press goes much wider than investigating abuses or even spreading general news; it lies in holding governments to account — trying them in the court of public opinion and the internet has expanded this court. Anyone looking for information has never been better equipped, having access to internet and of late to, social media as well. People no longer have to trust a handful of national papers or, worse, the regional paper.

Whereas, newspaper publishing industry in India is not at all in any trouble, rather it is on upward trajectory, vis-à-vis, the US or Europe, which has been in dwindling mode for more than a decade and half.

Undoubtedly, various surveys in the US have revealed that the newspaper circulation figures dwindled downwards over the years and the readership has increased either through internet or through electronic editions.

The problem in newspaper circulation round the globe pre-dates the internet by just few years. Radio and television must surely shoulder some of the blame; just as likely is that changing lifestyles impacted newspaper readership regardless of ever and always competing media.

It is a well known fact that the advertising is a substantial source of revenue for any periodical, may it be a weekly, fortnightly, or monthly, but there is constant conflict between newspaper circulation, readership and advertising. Government of India is one of the largest advertisers in the country and its standard condition for the release of an advertisement for the newspapers is the circulation figures of a newspaper.

Benchmarks show that on an average newspapers are left with around a third of their circulation revenue after costs are deducted,  in spite of that subscription rates of any newspaper, may it be regional or national daily, are astonishingly low compared with figures of all western countries.

It is a well known fact that 70% of  newspaper industry revenue comes from sales of advertising space, and only about 20% from subscription and single-copy 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 theory has more merit in the periodicals industry: that more than one person might read a copy of a particular issue. The newspaper industry found gold in this concept of shared readership, and with its partner-in-numbers and it began to measure total newspaper readership as an adjunct to circulation, and thus, en-cashed on government advertising.

In the western world, advertising is still a largely workable model for many newspaper publishing media houses. It is suffering, but far from dead. Are we certain that advertising alone can actually continue to fund the enormous content treasures which lie on the web?

Each Indian newspaper has its own website and every morning, they upload the day’s edition.  Some of them are even contemplating to have their radio station or a TV channel. Of late, most of the major media houses/ newspaper publishers have started their own TV channels like Times of India, Anandabazar Patrika, India today, The Hindu, Dainik Bhaskar, Sakshi, Malayalam Manorama, etc.

Just couple of decades back, the print media shouldered this responsibility of disseminating information/ news about the happenings within and outside the country. However, with the growth of IT, digital and other electronic technology, television and internet are not only supplementing this role through instant and wider 24x7 coverage, undoubtedly at a cost-effective price.

Due to pro-globalisation and liberal economic policies of the government of India in early 1990s, newspaper industry hugely benefited. Technological up-gradation was undertaken in the country by many major newspaper establishments and the computers, which were unheard of in newspaper offices in metros, were installed for desk-top publishing even by regional newspapers published from mufossil towns. This was followed by internet in 1995.

In the last five years time, there is a total change of scenario in technology and means of communication for the transmission of texts and visuals due to highly advanced mobile phones with audio-video recorders. In nutshell, a journalist's job has become exact and at cost-effective price. So, the newspapers are creating new methods of disseminating the news and other materials through new and latest electronic channels of communication like TV stations, websites, and radio station to reach their target audience with latest update information, as it happens, whenever they want at a very cost effective price 24x7.

Instant acceptance and adaptation of this information technology by print media has resulted in better and detailed coverage with greater speed at affordable cost which converted in the growth of readership. Statistics also show that people prefer their regional language newspapers and that is the reason regional language newspaper publishers are venturing out to bring editions from other cities and even mofusil towns where there is sizeable population of the particular language.

In order to cut costs, newspapers are spending less on journalism these days. Many are also trying to attract younger readers by shifting the mix of their stories towards youth oriented entertainment, life style and subjects more relevant to people's daily lives than international affairs and politics (The Times of India and Hindustan Times are a good example). They are trying to create new businesses on- and off-line, besides investing in conclaves and conferences which are socially more relevant.

In a recent study conducted by the School of Management Studies (SMS), Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology (MNNIT), Allahabad, the revelation was quite optimistic. It said “the future of newspapers is safe and robust”.

The study rejected prophesies of the demise of newspapers in western countries as well as in India. The futuristic and strategic thinking of newspaper publishers for up-gradation and technology adoption and competence building in their manpower has boosted Indian newspaper industry’s growth.

Over the last five years, there has been a steady growth of 16% in newspaper print circulation in Asia and surprising enough India showed a growth of 7.2% during the same period of time. According to the data available, more than half of the world’s adult literate population reads a newspaper — more than 2.5-billion in print and more than 600-million in digital form, which happens to be more than the global users of internet.

Growth and increasing demand of newspapers in India is the resultant factor of literacy growth. We had literacy rate of 12% at the time of partition which has grown to 75.8% in 2013. This rise in the number of people able to read and their relative lack of access to online sources of news naturally led to high levels of newspaper readership. This also is the reason of phenomenal rise in the publishing of regional newspapers.

In terms of languages, Hindi dominates the daily newspaper market with a total circulation of just over 15-million copies a day, followed by English newspapers with total circulation of over 9-million copies. Amongst the regional languages, Marathi newspapers sell 5.4-million copies a day followed by Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Kannada, Gurumukhi and Oriya — 4-million, 3.9-million, 3.7-million, 2.7-million, 8.4-lakh, and 4.8-lakh respectively.

As per data available with RNI, the largest number of newspapers published in India is in Hindi (7910) and the second largest number is in English (1406).

It is very encouraging that almost all the regional language newspapers have online editions whereas English and Hindi newspapers outscore them by 33 and 17 respectively.

Way back in its 15 February 2007 issue, The Economist reported that in India there are some 300 big newspapers, and they experienced a 12.9% increase in circulation that year.

Government of India figures show growth of newspaper and periodical titles at nearly 50% from the year 2001 to date. The publications are in 16 different languages, with Hindi the number one language and English number two. And it also confirms that newspaper competition in India is fierce, and the profits are substantial.

Emerging economies like of India and China is definitely a vibrant and growing market for the newspaper industry with matured and ever-growing literate readership, even while the future of the print-media is not exactly encouraging in the mature, largely western countries.