By Heli Shukla:
Conventional wisdom is replete with theories about print journalism’s probable death. The same wisdom, however, fails to apply itself when it comes to the future or the existing nature of print journalism in India. It is thriving, albeit with permutations and combinations of business models and journalism ethics to create a heady brand of a prosperous newspaper business. The internet has only broadened the reach of the Indian newspaper, it hasn’t managed to put in any kind of slow poison yet. And thus, to put it across rather curtly, the internet has not killed newspapers in India.
Three fundamental realities separate the Indian newspaper business from the rest of the world; namely, literacy rates, unorthodox business models and technological inaccessibility. Literacy is a prerequisite to reading a newspaper, you can’t read one if you’re illiterate. India has a population that is slowly waking up to greater levels of literacy. This allows a relatively unexplored expanse of readership that proprietors are harnessing to the fullest. A major chunk of this area is concentrated in regional language newspapers.
According to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Regional language newspapers have a greater readership than English dailies. Their statistics show that Hindi language dailies have a readership base which accounts for 34% of the total estimates. English dailies pale in comparison with a measly 19% share. Growing readership, and moreover, vernacular readership, can only be attributed to the upsurge in literacy rates. India experienced a steady literacy growth at 73% and this was a natural contributor to an increase in newspaper readership.
Another reason why literacy is adding to the readership base is because newspapers aren’t limited to one language alone. This allows for greater expansion in terms of local newspapers and simultaneously allows the big boys of the newspaper world to experiment with the same. The Times of India has strategized well and broken into the regional newspaper market. Launching dailies in Hindi, Marathi and recently Kannada, Bengali and Gujarati, it has expanded its base to accommodate a greater readership.
Regional newspapers have an upper hand in terms of total readership as well. The Times may have the largest circulation in the world for English language newspapers, but its readership in India is trumped by Dainik Jagran, that has a readership base of 15, 526 compared to TOI’s 7,253. (ABC figures July-December 2013)
The second reason for India’s successful newspaper business is that of unorthodox business models. The Times of India stands as the perfect example for the same. Twisting the traditional perceptions of gaining ad revenues and broadening horizons to include all kinds of media has worked in their favor. In an article published in The New Yorker in October 2012, Vineet Jain famously remarked, “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business.” The Jain brothers have gone against the convention of how newspaper proprietors should function. In a far wholesome perspective, the Times has become a business, and a successful one, too. That is not to say that it has thrown its journalistic ethics out the window, but it has merely put it on after ad revenue, thereby allowing profits to stream in.
As far as adapting to the internet is concerned, newspapers in India have websites that constantly update with every breaking story. Subscription only access exists with only a handful of publications online. Unlike in the US, Indian newspapers still haven’t adapted to an equal amount of internet presence. The New York Times, for example, has as much of a web presence as it does on paper, but online access to the day’s epaper is limited to subscribers only. Whether or not this amounts to greater profits is still a matter of conjecture.
The third and final reason for the internet not managing to dull the newspaper business is technological inaccessibility. The internet is a service that can be accessed via computers or smart phones or tablet devices only. Most Indians do not have access to a personal computer invariably making them technologically handicapped. Because of this, gathering news from the internet becomes a remote and difficult task. Newspapers, on the other hand, are circulated almost everywhere, from villages to cities thus making them a more preferred option.
Technology has permeated to the mass sphere purely as a means of communication. India is the second largest country in terms of mobile phone users. The number of mobile phones used in India adds up to a whopping 9 crore. That averages to 74 mobile phones per 100 citizens. Its usage as a means for news gathering or entertainment still remains limited. This reduces the popularity and relevance of the internet to a greater extent.
Newspapers will continue to thrive in India for a much longer time. The world may experience a death in print journalism or theorize about how it will dissipate soon. But, the sun will take a longer time to set on the Indian newspaper business.