Are newspapers dying?

It is a question I face all the time. At the release of my book last week it popped up again and again especially since the book has a chapter on print. My rejoinder — have you stopped reading? If you haven’t, then print will not just survive, but do exceedingly well in India. Here is why.

Dying art: As long as we continue to read, whether online or on paper, newspapers will continue to remain relevant

Of the 778 million people who can read and write in India, just about 354 million people read a newspaper. So the headroom for growth is tremendous. A large number of these people sit in areas where media penetration is poor — small towns and semi-urban India. These are the also the growth engines of the Indian economy in the coming months. Their total and per capita incomes are rising faster than yours and mine. Which means advertisers will spend a lot of money reaching out to these parts of India. That explains why almost every major language paper has been spending crores expanding into different markets and states. Also, because illiteracy has been such a bane, reading is an aspirational activity. The status attached to the ability to read has nothing to do with whether or not mobiles, tablets or other devices have reached there.

Are we saying then that digital has had no impact? Of course it has. 227 million users across mobile phones, tablets and other devices, digital media numbers are now getting serious. But the area where its impact will be felt most in the coming five years is the somewhat mature market for English newspapers. Last year the readership of English newspapers grew by just about one per cent. The time spent reading is going down, albeit marginally. More importantly young people are reading more online than offline.

Now add two factors. One, Internet penetration is highest in the markets with a large concentration of English readers — the metros and large towns. Two, most of the content available on the Internet, or any other digital media is in English. Indian language content has hardly taken off. This then puts English language papers in a particularly vulnerable position. However most English newspaper brands in India do not seem to have worked hard enough to build robust business models around the digital platform.

Most research and almost the entire experience around mass media brands are going digital in developed markets, showing that audiences seek the reassurance of a brand. So BBC, The Guardian or The Economist among others are news brands, whether it is offline or online. It is their ability to put together a credible reportage and analysis of events that sets them apart. Most of these brands do very well online. Therefore even if they lose readers offline, they gain them online.

The problem is converting this growth to revenues. According to The State of the News Media analysis an advertiser pays $14 to reach a reader offline and one dollar for the same reader online. So while readership is migrating, revenues are not. And while some brands have managed to get pay revenues, no single media company, is out of the digital woods yet. It would seem then that expecting Indian publishers to crack digital is premature.

At 110 million copies sold everyday, India is the world’s second largest newspaper market after China. It is also one of the fastest growing and most profitable ones. Plus it is blessed with a market that is far from mature. If only publishers would use this to their advantage and build a digital business that is somewhat ready for the inevitable decline in the paper format. This doesn’t seem to be happening.

To now answer the question we began with — newspapers and news content is not dying, visionary publishers are.  

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at 

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