Indian newspapers keeping up with the times, in a free country, with a local connect

Campaign India speaks with publishers to learn how their publications have evolved from 1947, the challenges they face, and how they can remain relevant in a digital world

Aug 17, 2022 08:11:00 AM | Article | Noel D'Souza

The Indian newspaper industry has come a long way since Hicky’s Bengal Gazette (the first English language newspaper to be published in India). The English language weekly by James Augustus Hicky was published in Kolkata, the centre of colonial India at the time.
 
As time progressed, many have stated that the Indian newspaper industry was a pillar of courage during the Indian freedom struggle.
 
And then, after independence, as the country embarked on the task of nation-building, newspapers took on the role of watchdogs to ensure that constitutional values were upheld and governments of any political ideology did not encroach upon civil rights.
 
In modern day, it continues to be one of the most credible sources of information in the media ecosystem.
 
Even with print continuously having its naysayers who believe that digital has sounded its death knell, it continues to live on in a way that it’s relevant not only to the masses, but also to advertisers, and in particular, to the government.
 
The I&B minister, Anurag Thakur, shared that as of June 2022, the Government spent around INR 19.25 crore across 1,529 newspapers.
 
On the contrary, according to a report in The Times of India, the newsprint imports dipped during the pandemic by 50%. Furthermore, another setback that has occurred in the newsprint industry recently, are the GST rates on print ink which have increased from 6% to 18% in July 2022.
 
Even with the rise and fall in revenues, the newsprint industry in India continues to sustain itself in the market.
 
As India completes three-quarters of a century as an independent country, we take a look at what the print media industry experts have to share about the evolution of the industry, how it has sustained its prominence, and its plans to reinvent the industry so that it continues to remain a pillar of courage for the voiceless.
 
Circa 1947
 
While Indians were celebrating their freedom from British colonisation, The Times of India had turned 109 years since its launch in 1838.  
 
Mohit Jain, board member, executive director, Bennett Coleman and Co (Times Group) and president, INS, shared, “After independence, TOI along with other print publications aimed to collectively fight and preserve the nation’s constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression from 1947 till date.”
 
The growth and evolution of the industry after 1947
 
Post independence, the first stutter the press received was in 1975. It was severely affected during the emergency period which lasted for 21 months, when freedom of speech was said to be curtailed.  
 
The ruling government during that period locked up journalists for reporting the truth and altered content that was produced in print and other forms of media.
 
The print industry revolted and fought against this threat of autocracy. The then prime minister Morarji Desai, went on to create the second Press Commission in 1979, the first one was created in 1953. This has helped safeguard the freedom and independence of the press against pressures of all kinds, including  governmental.
 
The next landmark event was the liberalisation period. Talking about how this era helped the industry scale and reach newer heights, Jain said, “With the boom that accompanied liberalisation in 1990-1991, the print industry, gave expression to a transforming and aspirational nation.”
 
Television in India was conceived in 1959, with its first experimental telecast which started daily transmission in 1965 as a part of All India Radio (AIR).  
 
Although TV channels were seen as a disruptor, during this period, print continued to stay relevant to the masses.
 
“As education levels and aspirations grew in India’s smaller cities and towns, English-language dailies provided a window to the future. For young people, print publications stood for opportunity – to learn about the world and seek new avenues,” remarked Jain.
 
The pandemic
 
The late 90s and the early noughties saw the newspaper industry boom. While digital was knocking at the print revenues for a while, the door finally opened when the pandemic hit.
 
In a report published in December 2021, the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) members reported a 41.29% drop in ad revenue at INR 10,458.28 crore in 2020 from INR 17,815.88 crore in 2019, courtesy the pandemic. The distribution of business from accredited agencies was dominated by language dailies, which accounted for 58.04% of the total business.
 
Things improved significantly in 2021. According to a report by TAM Media Research, the print industry recovered 82% of the pre-Covid levels and posted an 18% drop in ad volumes for 2021, as opposed to 2019.
 
What the pandemic did was encourage many media houses to pivot into digital avenues to connect with their audiences.
 
Abhishek Karnani, director, The Free Press Journal, explained what the media house did.
“FPJ began moving into conferences, talk shows, and thought leadership research booklets, almost five years ago. However, when Covid struck this country, we moved to webinars often in association with leading educational bodies. This strategy helped our cash flows and our brand image.”
Jain believed that Covid highlighted the endurance of print. He said, “The largest of newspapers were severely hit by lockdowns and an economy that ground to a standstill. Rumours were doing the rounds causing misinformation. TOI turned this adversity into an opportunity by launching one of its most popular campaigns, Times Verified. We leveraged the knowledge of our journalists and their formidable intellectual networks to invite readers to send in the most widely circulated myths and robustly fact-checked them. At a time of crisis and unprecedented anxiety, people instinctively turned for comfort and reassurance to the printed word.”
 
Post-pandemic challenges
 
GroupM’s This Year Next Year 2022 report cited that print advertising is forecasted to get INR 12,667 crores worth of ad revenue.
 
However, the cost component of paper is a huge hindrance and poses a significant challenge in this case. The I&B minister shared in a Lok Sabha announcement that the imports of the newspaper have fallen drastically by 46%. The newspaper industry had reported imports worth 13,84,056 kg of newsprint in 2019-2020. Whereas in 2020-21, the newspaper industry had imported 6,48,620 kg of newsprint.
 
These hindrances in newsprint costs are causing a hurdle for the print industry in India.
 
Sharing his opinion on newsprint prices, Karnani said, “In the US, UK, Germany and much of the developed world, a newspaper covers the production cost. But in India, the newspaper sells for INR 3-10. So while newspapers elsewhere begin with a surplus over each copy sold, India suffers losses for the same. So it depends more on advertising, not circulation and that can be a big handicap.”
 
Talking about how the print industry in India has been paid a visit by the grim reaper quite a few times, Jain said, “Each time this topic of print’s death has risen, the industry tends to refresh and reinvigorate by shedding old practices. This is done through innovating ceaselessly and harnessing technology and creativity to remain relevant to readers.”
 
Print power
 
Emphasising the impact of advertising on print’s endurance, Jain remarked, “Advertisers value print for its ability to deliver high impact to consumers and strengthen brand recall. Even the most advanced digital companies advertise regularly in print for the impact it delivers. Rufus Olins, the former CEO of Newsworks once commented that ‘running a campaign without newspapers is like trying to bake a cake without baking powder’.”
 
Paywalls are another key strategy the industry is employing to garner revenues and sustain itself in the market. Speaking about FPJ’s stance on paywalls, Karnani shared that the Indian markets are price-sensitive. “While other publications are going behind paywalls, we chose to offer our content, even our digital newspaper, free of cost to anyone who wants it. We believed that access to truth is everyone’s birthright, without having to pay a price for it,” he added.
 
Print in 2047
 
“As we witness yet another return to form post-Covid, the prophecy appears once again off the mark. The year 2047 is 25 years away. What shape print will take, or how it will be delivered, may alter in many ways, but there is doubt about print being the mother base of media, the core from which all new age media draw their sustenance”, commented Jain.
 
MV Shreyans Kumar, managing director and media owner, Mathrubhumi, shared a different perspective that went beyond ROIs and reinvention. According to him, to gain relevance, the industry needs to continue to be a harbinger of social change and act as a propagator of authenticity.
 
He explained, “The onus of responsible media organisations to act as gatekeepers of authentic information rises exponentially. We have observed that even as this new audience slavers after multiple sources for consumption of news, we see a visible spike in our digital platforms, during news breaks. We realise that rigorous fact-checking and painstakingly earned a reputation for purveying edited and credible content drives the audience back to respected media organisations. We believe that this chaotic media universe allows us to gain increased audience share, relying on our legacy of credibility.”
 
According to a PwC global entertainment and media outlook report for 2022-2026, India will see an increase in revenue from INR 26,378 crore in 2021 to 29, 945 crore in 2026.
 
Thus, even though the newspaper industry is witnessing a slowdown in revenues across the globe, in India, it continues to thrive and remain a powerful force for the press.
 
Signing off, Jain said, “The beauty of India’s newspaper industry is its resilience and durability. Over the years, it has absorbed numerous blows and bounced back stronger each time. Citizen journalism has made newspapers interactive in unprecedented ways. Crucially, newspapers have retained people’s trust in the written word, amidst the flood of misinformation on social media and it aims to continue the momentum in the future.”