Ramu Ramanathan
Aug 12, 2011

Jacob Mathew: “Newspapers are not a sunset industry in India”

The complete interview with Jacob Mathew, executive director and publisher at Malayala Manorama and president of Wan-Ifra, the first Indian to hold this position. He talks to Ramu Ramanathan about his new role, the Indian newspaper climate, and the future of the industry.

Jacob Mathew: “Newspapers are not a sunset industry in India”

Kudos on becoming the president of Wan-Ifra. How has the first month since 1 July 2011 been? Busy with the programming for the Wan-Ifra Conference in Chennai? What should we expect?

The Wan-Ifra Conference in Chennai is a major event for the South Asian Newspaper Publishing industry and the entire activities are coordinated by Wan-Ifra Chennai which is the base for the region. The Conference this year would have three important parallel programmes. For the editors, there is the Newsroom Summit, from the business side the Advertising & Marketing Cross Media Summit and from the production angle, there would be the Print Summit. The Expo in India is now considered as the second largest Expo in the world of Newspaper Publishing. The IFRA Expo in Europe continues to be the main event.
You've said the print media in India is not a sunset industry. Please comment.
In India, China, Brazil and South Africa, the print is growing both in terms of circulation as well as advertising revenue. This is likely to continue as our penetration levels are relatively low compared to the advanced economies.
The recent Ad-Ex analysis endorses your view. It states print advertising witnessed a growth of 16% during H1 2011 compared to same period during 2010. Of which newspapers bagged 96% of print advertising during H1 2011. Does this mean advertisers are not moving out of the door?
Newspaper is the reach medium that offers huge penetration compared to other publications. Again newspapers are used primarily for tactical advertising. Magazines are more in the niche category and the clients depend on magazines for thematic and brand campaigns. There is more scope for increased advertising revenue in the magazine sector as well.
You've said this, and very few people realise it, that access to a newspaper in India at Rs 1 or Rs 2, it is cheaper than one hour of internet. And therefore a viable proposition. Is a low cover cost of a newspaper the only business model for a country with for a country with low living standards, but a huge economy?
Low cover price is a model adopted by many Indian publishers and it leads to over dependence on advertising. It would be a viable proposition for the reader. Many do not consider this as the best model and it is argued that the reader could pay more. The small and medium sized newspapers especially feel the strain when there is an economic slowdown. One needs to look at the industry in totality and compete on editorial quality too.
When I visit newspaper plants in India, I am struck by the upbeat tone; plus big investments in plants and machinery, and a strong sense of the confidence among the newspaper elite in India’s performance and prospects. Your view?
Circulation figures of most Indian newspapers have grown by about five per cent every year for the past few years and also advertising by double digits. Requirement of more colour pages to meet reader and advertiser expectations is also necessary.
Are such high-rates of investments tenable? Because suddenly the old rules of cash flows, brand equity and the legacy of editorial excellence has changed. Please comment.
More colour pages and advertiser expectations have all fueled the need for large CAPEX. Most print media companies expect circulation to grow for at least some more time for various reasons. Advertising may have some ups and downs but all are hoping for a continued growth. In the case of most Indian Newspapers except those where marketing drives editorial, the old rules of brand equity and editorial excellence or supremacy continue to rule.
The media industry used to be full of powerful families. But a combination of regulation and technology is modifying media monopolies. Suddenly, we have groups for whom news is a peripheral business, not a consuming passion. Is this good news for the future of the newspaper industry in India?
As long as journalism is supported by those that respect freedom of the press and ethics, ownership does not matter.  For democracy, every country needs a free press. It is important for every owner to use journalism as a public trust for the greater good of the nation, its people and their aspirations. Owners should not use a newspaper or a news channel for their personal glory and self interest. Even in this world of emerging technology and internet the same principles must apply.
Books like The Vanishing Newspaper by Philip Meyer which calculates that the first quarter of 2043 will be the moment when newsprint dies in America. Will many more Indian newspaper go digital? How will Indian newsroom managers and advertising executives cope with this new world?
If there are alternatives to newsprint such as flexible displays, it is definitely better all around – for publishers, readers and the environment. If 2043 is predicted to be the death of newsprint in North America, there is time for these alternatives to become mainstream and affordable. We should remember that content is our forte and not the medium in which it reaches our audience.
One thing that shines through is the pragmatism of India’s policies, particularly over cost control and paper management. Malayala Manorama plants in Kottayam and elsewhere follow stringent best practices.  Can you share a few?
For starts, most Indian publishers operate keeping the best standards in place. Page Management is a key area. Another area is waste management during the printing process. Plus web width reduction is an area, which most companies have carried out well.
And the importance of these SOPs in day to day production?
The upgradation of ISO Audits on a regular basis is a must. We wish to move to ISO 14001:2004 which additionally covers Environment Management System & OHSAS 18001:2007 Occupational Health and Safety Management System. Plus effective budgeting across all divisions, and introduction of ERP systems. And finally, the HR Policies and managing and motivating the team are a key aspect as well.
Are cross-media campaigns become inevitable? We've seen how newspapers like Amar Ujala and Lokmat create innovative projects for both their advertisers and readers.
Media owners have to be platform neutral. All big newspaper groups have specialized teams focusing in multimedia activities. These media houses can offer 360 degree solution as they have presence in all the important forms of media. Interactive schemes with the readers are in vogue and advertisers also benefit out of these interactions.
An increasing number of foreign publishers are eyeing the Indian sub-continent with FII and superior management solutions. Should this be a concern for the small and medium newspaper house?
Yes, absolutely. It is important to protect small and medium newspaper houses as they will get wiped out by foreign publishers who are only eyeing profits. Small and medium newspapers serve a greater need of the nation and have an important role to play in the Indian democracy. They understand local sensibilities of each region and in India; newspapers have been always responsible, standing for a secular and vibrant democracy.
Any representation by Wan-Ifra along with the INS (Indian Newspaper Society) to the Government of India to push through reforms which are needed to sustain a fast and inclusive growth?
Wan-Ifra and INS operate in two different areas. INS is a member of Wan-Ifra. INS is very important to the Indian publishing industry and its activities are in no way connected with Wan-Ifra's normal working. However, when there is Wan-Ifra events happening in the region, INS supports because the Indian print media benefits in the process. Like INS, Wan-Ifra strongly supports a free press and if there are any issues in India, they do react in the interest of democracy and free press.


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