Why Indians Are Bucking the Newspaper Trend

Updated on March 21, 2018

One of the perks from my IT career in the nineties was a chance to travel – primarily to the US and Europe, to visit business partners and customers. Imagine my shock when I saw that the ubiquitous newspaper was already on the down-trend. Even the hotel I stayed at did not provide what I thought was an essential start to the day. I recall being lost on a Sunday morning, walking down to one of the nearby newspaper vending machines, and using the requisite number of quarters to buy a newspaper.

Cut to 2018 in India – the newspaper industry is still going strong, which is rather surprising since mobile internet usage is increasing. I quickly looked up circulation statistics to learn more about the demise of newspapers and found the chart featured below.

Note: Details paywalled
Note: Details paywalled | Source

So why is the newspaper thriving in this part of the world?

For me, right from childhood, the newspaper has always been around as the first source of information on what is going on in my city, in my country, in the world, in the universe. Considering that I come from a family that devours the written word, it is possibly not surprising.


But to the educated villager in rural India, the statement still holds, albeit, with a preference for the vernacular newspaper. I have strong roots in south India, exposed to three major languages and cultures (one as my origin, one where I spent my early years and one by career choice). Newspapers are the right way to start the day in each of these areas. Interestingly, circulation has gone up in the last decade, due to literacy increasing in the country.


My last workplace had a rest-area (of sorts) where we had drinking water, coffee machine, a microwave and a selection of newspapers. At any given time during the workday, you would find at least one person sitting there reading a paper, some times we would find heated debates ongoing, even comparing facts on the same incident from different newspapers. Considering that I was one among the older folk at that workplace (70% of the population were twenty somethings), I safely conclude this is not a generational preference.


When I visit our village (we have a family home there) I see the newspaper very much in evidence with a different kind of population. Although most of us would use the mobile internet to check out the latest news, there was definitely some merit in the community discussions held over an open newspaper – it was more a social event than just a consumption of news.


So what is setting apart the Indian scenario?

  • Definitely, increasing literacy: When we recall that this refers to increasing literacy in the second most populous country in the world, it follows that it represents a humungous number of eyeballs

  • Availability: I have the newspaper on my doorstep at 7:00 am every day. The newspaper-wallah (as the delivery agency is called) has a front-loaded day taking and distributing an early shipment (with some local advertisement “inserts” added in for whoever will pay him directly). Vernacular newspapers in almost every language spoken in India is available

  • More trust in the newspaper than on TV news coverage: The printed newspaper is accepted as more trust-worthy and less biased

  • Advertising revenue continues to be a thriving stream: Flipkarts and Amazons of the world advertise extensively in print media. To a newspaper purist like me, this has spawned a deplorable trend of having cover-sheets of full-page advertisements from these internet biggies which prevent me from sneaking a quick look at the headlines upfront, when I pick up the paper at my doorstep

  • Affordability: newspapers are priced at suitable levels to allow most of the population to afford it on a regular basis. It costs less than a cup of tea at the roadside stall.

So will this change with the upward trend in mobile usage? There is a school of thought that as the Indian youth embark on their internet explorations, the newspaper industry will go the way of other countries. While we have to wait and watch, initial data points do not substantiate this. Mobile internet is primarily seen as a peer to peer communication source as well as an entertainment source. If we check what the Indian public is doing on the internet, especially from a smartphone (data from January 2017)

Source

The only “information” point in the graph above is about “product information” which is potentially shopping around for the best price vs features on products. There are reports that internet users would reach 500 million this year, with no secret that most of these users are on mobiles.


However, quoting from the press release that provides this data:

The demographic profile and the purpose of usage are interlinked. Popularity of entertainment, social networking etc makes internet more attractive for youngsters presently. Unless digitalisation of important civic and social services as envisioned under e-governance programmes really take-off, the internet will remain to be perceived as a medium of entertainment for youngsters.”

Reading between the lines, the perception is not that it is a medium of information. So, safe to say that my morning newspaper is unlikely to vanish in my lifetime!

© 2018 Saisree Subramanian

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