A bibliophile and a technology enthusiast with a day job in the IT industry
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 downtrend. 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 the present day in India, and the newspaper industry is still going strong, which is rather surprising since mobile internet usage is increasing. I quickly looked up circulation statistics:
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, a 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 clearly some merit in the community discussions held over an open newspaper, it was more a social event than just consumption of news.
So what is setting India apart in this scenario?
- 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 humongous 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 them 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 2018)
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 in India have crossed 600 million, with no secret that most of these users are on mobiles.
However, the six hundred million users prioritize social networking, games and video consumption as prime applications, the perception is that the internet is not that a reliable medium of news and information.
The year 2020 posed the biggest challenge to the Indian newspaper industry. The global pandemic saw India impose one of the strictest "lockdowns" in March-April. To add insult to the injury of being cooped up at home, there was a period of four weeks where my morning newspaper was unavailable and I had to turn to online editions, which was never the same. I heaved a sigh of relief when the newspaper delivery restarted, albeit with a thinner edition as many advertisers initially shrugged away from the newspapers due to reduced audiences.
Considering that there is a whole ecosystem of printers, transporters, vendors, delivery agents and a wary population, some of whom decided that the multiple points of handling the newspaper increased the risk of allowing the virus to directly enter their homes. For some time there was even a prediction of the death-knell of the print edition with the newspaper vendor’s job being a possible casualty of the pandemic.
Many newspaper publishing houses undertook campaigns on television, internet and print media championed by prominent personalities like politicians and doctors reiterating the safety of newspapers. By the last quarter of the year, the newspapers had started bulking up again with the full-page advertisements back with a vengeance, clearly affirming that my morning newspaper is here to stay!
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2018 Saisree Subramanian