Print media: Chronicle of a death foretold

After the lockdown ends, the growth trajectory for media will lie not in old-style newspapers but digital news

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Mrinal Pande

In the early 1920’s, the poet Akbar Ilahabadihad advised his writer friends driven by a fervour for Swaraj, “Jab Tope Muquabilho, Akhbar nikalo !” (when faced with a cannon, bring out a daily!). Up until the early 21st century,despite the presence of TV, defying the worldwide trend of attrition in print media, India saw enormous media empires take shape. Many were led by their English publications and channels but media in 21 officially recognised languages, led the growth.

True, even in the second decade, English media continued to punch above its actual weight in the anglophile advertising market, but by 2014 elections, things were changing first in TV and then in Hindi print. North Indian voters being the holy grail for India’s power elite, Hindi media was actively wooed by all most of all by the BJP and its coalition partners. Leading Hindi dailies gradually became the major revenue generators for their companies’ shareholders.

Some majors began bringing out 50+ editions that covered the entire Hindi belt, fed advertising liberally by both government and private corporate advertisers. In the process,small town regional newspapers disappeared but this was waived off as necessary collateral damage. And both in the 2014 and 2019 elections, Hindi media helped the Right in its muscular march to power in a very big way.English media like the curate’s egg was liberal in parts and sharply castigated by the Right. The years after 2014 saw several radical editors replaced with quieter, less cantankerous men and women both on TV and in print.

Then came Corona and the lockdown and suddenly things did not look bright any more, either for Hindi or English.

In metro towns, two months of lockdowns saw dealership and home deliveries trickling almost to a stop for both English and Hindi,capped as things were by public paranoia about newspapers spreading the virus. In non-metro towns in the Hindi belt, language papers have continued to be delivered but for lack of advertising, they are thinner in form. There are stories of drastic cut backs in numbers and downsizing of teams.

The strange model that the English market leaders had developed for print when the going was good, copied by all others, had kept cover prices ludicrously low and let the advertising revenues subsidise the loyal old readers. With COVID-19 forcing the news industry into a decline, the vital flow of advertising revenues has stopped entirely.

Things are so bad that a recent dispatch to the government from the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), a body representing some 800 publishers, says print has suffered losses of Rs 4,500 crore in the past two months alone. And it is staring at a further loss of some Rs 12,000 to 15,000 crore more in the coming months.

INS has formally requested the government for critical relief measures:two-year tax holiday for print, removal of import duty on newsprint and extending all relief being granted to other industries, hiking up the government-sponsored advertising rates and ramping up the overall budget spend on print media. As most young readers switch to e-papers and web portals on their laptops, good days seem to be over for print.

Frankly, after the lockdown is lifted, the growth trajectory for media will lie not in old style newspapers butin digital news. It will happen faster for English, a little slower for Hindi and the vernaculars, but signs are there on the horizon.

The digital world as we know is currently being led by global tech majors: Microsoft, Facebook and Google. Despite the decline in global markets, equity indexes for all are showing an upsurge in April despite the meltdown elsewhere.

In India, the recent Ambani tie-up with Facebook has suddenly upped the market ratings of the company. This may, in the days to come, attract more global players to India. At this point, understanding of ownership patterns and their influence on the democratic public sphere with its diversity of voices would be of prime importance to India’s market and media practitioners alike.

So how will all this translate into the new media business, faced with a disastrous atrophy in print readership? Some, like the Urdu Nai Duniya have reportedly shut their print edition altogether. Others have asked their teams to accept cuts in salaries and downsized staff to reduce costs, despite the government’s appeal for not reducing either salaries or employees.

However, most major Indian dailies have already gone to the pay online model. Today as the digital ground shifts beneath their feet, many are now offering their news for free to retain viewers. And not the number of stories being read online, but the time spent on a digital news platform is becoming more important for attracting revenue. The low-priced model most print dailies had adopted so far, with readers avidly buying cheap fat papers and ad revenues rolling in all year, was creating freebie junkies. Even when it did, big media started its online e-papers free so that the young, hooked to Facebook and Whatsapp, would come to them.

The new reader, by the time COVID-19 hit, had acquired more control in both selecting its favourite news source, and was also interacting with content producers and fellow users directly. This has already blurred the lines between mass communication and interpersonal communication for India’s millennials. Jio had in 2016 launched a devilishly clever scheme offering free use of Jio for two months. This netted them millions of new users. And as the forced-to-stay-home young search for news today, everything is fast shrinking and becoming generalised: friendships, language, individuality, liberalism.

In the post- COVID era, this dynamic and fast changing media scene will need sustained research on content standards, new regulations and consumer preferences. It’s not easy. Popular websites helped reduce each follower to a set of data. This phenomenon has created a perfect format for digital media that will be streamed through the Net and accessed either on laptops or through cheap 3G or 4G Chinese phones.

In a furiously centralisation-oriented leadership that has deeply impacted our federal structure,the mobile revolution has created millions of new media consumers and presented the politicians with the ultimate gift: one nation under one format.

To the new consumers who are freebie junkies, brand names or media obligations towards accurate and responsible reporting matter little. They prefer to read about grand gestures, hear lofty Jumlas: Jaan hai tau Jahaan hai! And to watch the live streaming of rose petals being showered from clear blue skies to laud “Covid Warriors”. They want free news with byte size headlines in clever quotable Hindi 24X7. Who minds if it comes laced with planted inaccurate facts, fake news and morphed videos?

The media thus seems set to race ahead with technology and let ideas look after themselves. A crowd of Net nerds and WhatsApp groupies in metro towns will lead the digital news consumers, over programmed, furious and ever lonely.

For the small-town types too, the lines between news and entertainment are fast evaporating. An anchor, no matter how bigoted he is, if he can create hysterical theatrics, is vastly preferable to sedate newsmakers who patiently analyse and probe our own and global democracies.

Would the boards supervising the media companies be rattled? There is very little chance as they are by now with corporate representatives that produce steel, cement, chemicals, textiles, manage funds and banks.

As for political parties, since 2014 elections,they just have one question for their media cells: how can we reach the maximum number of voters? Ethical questions about format, comparative ease of accessibility for the rich and broadband-connected 10% and the widening digital gap between them and the rural small town news consumers using 3 or 4G mobiles are unlikely to be raised if at all.

The top leadership truly believes that less privacy is better for the nation. Young Indians,they exhort in their radio and television addresses to the nation, need to be disciplined and obedient citizens of the future.

Yes, it is a cruel portrait of Indian media in the post-COVID age. But know what? If we really wanted a different media, we’d have invented it by now.

Revenue models in post-COVID era:

After the lockdown, public access to Net will definitely increase, in part due to more and more people pursuing news digitally on sites and apps and because digital media has introduced new avenues for distance learning for students. Apart from lay readers and students, the new economy will also need news and enter a lifelong learning trajectory, to cope with the new tech challenges.

In India digital penetration is deep but asymmetrical. There are the privileged using multiple devices and broadband, but they are only one tenth of the total. Near forty percent use smartphones for news. The remaining forty percent have ordinary mobiles. Ten percent Indians have no access to the digital world.

Now, digital news rooms need big money for news gathering and even more for constant upgrade of technology to remain more user friendly than multiple competitors. So the question arises as to what is the ideal model for the digital media to raise vital revenues. In the west, NYT and WSJ have already created sound models for themselves that carry a healthy mix of subscription-based revenue and advertising that includes direct sale deals, branded content created for niche groups of advertisers and programmatic advertising.

But the model can not be replicated in India. The earlier model where traffic was driven by using paywall-free content on Net brings big viewership but no money. Then the two global giants: Facebook and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, get 70-80% of the digital advertising in India. Even multi-language apps like TikTok are new kids on the revenue aggregation block by now accruing more revenues than many sober news providers.

According to Alexa, most Indian viewers prefer to visit established news networks. This leaves very little in the market for some spirited independent news media outlets like Scroll and The Wire. A 2018 launch of subscription-based model saw little progress and may now wither further as the post-COVID economy atrophies the markets.

It is undeniable that Hindi-led vernaculars will now drive digital news traffic and with it the revenues in India. Multi language news apps like Daily Hunt and News Dog have already started attracting advertising. They offer content in 9-14 Indian languages with Hindi having the largest consumer base. So news aggregators are not biting beyond Hindi and English.

This invites an unavoidable clash between two group: the aggregators and the content provider publishers. The aggregators have so far been collecting news at fairly low prices from content generators, read major newspaper chains and e papers and news portals. Some smart publishers, aware of the primary importance of their content for aggregators, are now asking for a minimum guaranteed price for using their content. They have been getting a fraction of what the aggregators are making by using what they are creating. So watch this space.

The Malayala Manorama Group, a major media presence down south, has reportedly already walked out of a tie-up with an aggregator app company due to misgivings about the revenue sharing agreement for their precious content. Good show! Content remains the king.

Vernaculars, so far poor cousins to major English newspapers or digital portals, must also realise that the future opens up big avenues for them since they alone can cater to rural news needs, and drive the traffic towards aggregators who then enter their markets.

This largely unexplored area constitutes 70% of the consumer base in India. So India’s digital publishers, stop being snobbish and do some quick homework to start generating good content and drive strong bargains with the fat cat aggregators.

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Published: 10 May 2020, 6:00 PM