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Independent India at 60

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Independent India at 60


Newspaper futures: India and the world


India’s experienced and diverse press is in robust growth mode. We must ensure that it preserves its elements, its core values and its soul

Organisations like the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) are trying gamely to make the best of it: “You’re one of 1.4 billion people in the world reading a newspaper today. More than ever before, the well-informed are deciding it’s silly not to.” This is the theme of an advertising campaign “clarifying any misconceptions about the state of the industry.” The campaign accompanies a presentation by WAN president, Gavin O’Reilly, on ‘WAN Capital Markets Day,’ May 8, 2007, that claims, among other things, that “circulations continue to grow globally (and not just in China and India).”

According to a celebratory WAN press release, an online Harris poll covering six western countries plus Australia has found that “online news and information will supplant television network news as the leading news source over the next five years, but newspapers will remain a vital source on their own, and can become dominant if they successfully integrate online delivery as a part of what they offer the public.” The broadcast television fraternity, which seems to be much less organised on the world stage than newspaper folk, can be expected to strike back with its own data, market analyses, and poll findings.

WAN’s ‘World Press Trends, released in June 2007 at the 60th World Newspaper Congress in Cape Town, showcased the fact that in 2006, the total circulation (515+ million) of paid-for dailies round the world rose by 2.30 per cent over the previous year. The five-year increase, for 2002-2006, was a decent but unremarkable 9.48 per cent.

Stories of growth & decline

The breakdown told the real story. Unsurprisingly to newspaper people round the world, the lion’s share of this 2.30 per cent global growth came from Asia (3.61 per cent). South America (4.55 per cent), Australia & Oceania (2.11 per cent), and Africa (1.20 per cent) made useful but more modest contributions to global growth. North America saw a straight drop of 1.97 per cent in 2006, against a background of a 5.18 per cent decline over five years. As for Europe, most of its 0.74 per cent growth came from the less developed countries of eastern Europe and, to an extent, central Europe. The European Union registered a 0.87 per cent drop in 2006, making it a 5.63 per cent slide since 2002.

The real story has been known for some years: populous and fast-growing Asia is the wonderland of newspaper growth. The story has attracted some wide-eyed, exclamatory notice in the western press; and, as far as the story of the Indian language press is concerned, there is a splendidly insightful book by the political scientist Robin Jeffrey, India’s Newspaper Revolution (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2000).

Wondrous Asia

According to WAN’s ‘World Press Trends,’ 70 of the world’s 100 best-selling dailies are published in Asia; and 60 of them in China, Japan, and India. The world’s three top countries in daily newspaper circulation are China (98.70 million), India (88.90 million), and Japan (69.10 million). They are followed by the United States (52.30 million) and Germany (21.10 million).

But there is an interesting story within the Asian newspaper growth story. It is in developing — not developed — Asia where paid daily newspaper circulation is growing. (South Korea, with its 10.59 per cent rise in 2006 and its 19 per cent growth over five years, is an exception to this trend.) Paid-for daily newspapers in China registered a 2.27 per cent growth in 2006, against a background of a 15.52 per cent increase over five years. The corresponding figures for India were 12.93 per cent and 53.63 per cent. “The Japanese remain,” as a WAN press release puts it, “the world’s greatest newspaper buyers, with 630.9 [copies of] daily sales per thousand adults [compared with about 70 copies of daily newspapers for 1000 adults in India].” But even in Japan, daily newspaper sales dropped by 0.83 per cent in 2006 and by 2.42 per cent over five years.

So it is developing Asia that is doing most of the running in this continent. ‘World Press Trends’ minus developing Asia will look remarkably flat.

The ad picture

The global story of ad revenue growth for paid-for dailies in 2006 and over five years was somewhat more cheerful. WAN’s estimate is that advertising revenues for paid-for dailies went up 3.77 per cent in 2006 and 15.77 per cent from 2002. Daily newspapers took 29.60 per cent of a global advertising market in mainstream media valued at $ 425 billion. Dailies and magazines, with a combined share of 42 per cent, still constituted the largest advertising medium, comfortably ahead of television with its 38 per cent.

Nevertheless, there is no escaping that the news on the advertising front mirrors paid circulation trends, more or less, with the European Union constituting a significant exception. The bad news is that revenues in the world’s largest newspaper advertising market, the United States, dropped by 1.68 per cent in 2006 (reversing the trend of 5.69 per cent growth over five years); and by 3.20 per cent (reversing a fairly robust trend of 10 per cent growth over five years) in economically troubled Japan. The news from Europe, although still mixed, is better: EU recorded a rise of 1.36 per cent in 2006, and an impressive 39.54 per cent over five years, in daily newspaper advertising revenues.

In developing Asia, Chinese dailies won 16 per cent and 58 per cent increases in ad revenues in 2006 and over five years. The corresponding figures for India, in a highly competitive advertising market, were 23.18 per cent and 85 per cent. Among the major countries, only South Africa seems to have done better.

Two different media worlds

There is a moral in all this and it came home to me in May 2006, just ahead of an international journalism education conference that my alma mater, the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, had convened in New York. On conference-eve, a leading journalism educator chatted with me over the phone about the opening discussion on world media trends, which I was going to moderate. After getting my news-in-brief — and headlines — on Indian media trends, he advised me enthusiastically to tell this story at the start because (to paraphrase his assessment), “here [in the United States] there is gloom and panic over the future of newspapers; I think it’s exaggerated but you must tell them your story.”

The journalists and journalism educators from China, South Africa, and several Latin American countries told similar stories of growth and buoyancy, contrasting with the gloom encountered in most developed countries, with their mature — in some respects, over-ripe — media markets.

The Indian press, which is more than two centuries old, has come a long way, especially over the past three decades. Its strengths have largely been shaped by its historical experience and, in particular, by its association with the freedom struggle as well as movements for social emancipation, reform, and amelioration. The long struggle for national emancipation; controversies and battles over social reform, radical and revolutionary aspirations and movements; compromising as well as fighting tendencies; and the long-term competition between self-serving and public service visions of journalism – have all found reflection in the character and performance of the Indian press over the long term. What is indisputable is that this deep socio-political and cultural engagement accounts for the seriousness, relevance, and public-spirited orientation of the press tradition at its best.

Legacy of diversity

Secondly, part of the historical legacy is some pluralism and a certain space for the expression of divergent opinions. Diversity in the Indian press can be said to reflect the vast regional, linguistic, socio-economic, and cultural heterogeneity of a subcontinent. Within the Indian newspaper tradition, there has long been an awareness of the need for greater pluralism. In several developed countries, press and media monopoly has developed in a big way, eroding the values of serious journalism.

In India too, price wars and unhealthy market practices aimed at aggrandising market share and killing competition have manifested themselves in the press sector. In parallel, there are marked tendencies of manipulating news, analysis, and public affairs information to suit special interests; a downgrading and devaluing of editorial functions to subserve advertising and marketing goals; and an increasing willingness to sensationalise, trivialise, and dumb down. There are tendencies of hyper-commercialisation, which tackles the newspaper and its journalism more or less like any other commodity or ‘product’ and sees any higher ground vision as old-fashioned, sanctimonious humbug.

Take off

This is a great pity considering the history of the Indian press. Even in pre-Independence times, it learned to act like a player in the major league political and socio-economic arena, despite its well-known limitations in terms of reach in society, financial viability, professional training, and entrepreneurial and management capabilities. The First Press Commission noted that in 1953 the circulation of dailies per 1000 in the population was 5.4 against the backdrop of an all-India literacy level of 16.4 per cent. From such a low base, India’s daily newspaper circulation climbed slowly to 3.15 million in 1957 and 5.11 million in 1962. It would take the press three decades of Independence to cross the 10 million mark and, in a manner of speaking, join the ranks of the `mass media.’ It would take 32 years of Independence for the total circulation of Hindi daily newspapers finally to overtake the total circulation of English language newspapers in India.

According to NRS 2006 (National Readership Survey 2006), there are an estimated 204 million readers of daily newspapers and an estimated 222 million readers of all publications in India. An important feature is the rising profile of `rural’ readers who constitute nearly 50 per cent of all daily newspaper readers; this is in striking contrast to the composition of newspaper readership in India 20 years ago. However, women are severely under-represented in the ranks of daily newspaper readers in the country. Close to 360 million literates or neo-literates, who are categorised as NRS 2006 as those “who can read and understand any language,” do not read any publication. They represent a massive latent readership.

The press is still the dominant medium for advertising in the country, even if television has steadily increased its share. The Times of India is, by some distance, the world’s top-circulated general interest broadsheet daily newspaper in English. It is heartening that The Hindu — with its 128-year-old tradition of serious journalism; its commitment to core journalistic values, quality, and relevance, and to continuing technological and editorial mode rnisation; and its determination to be contemporary as well as ‘classical’ in all major areas of functioning — has been able to develop its net paid circulation of over 1.1 million, and a readership estimated by NRS 2006 to be 4 million.

Five factors

Professor Jeffrey’s scholarship on the growth of successful newspapers in a dozen Indian languages highlights a lively and buoyant situation where, essentially, five factors have been capitalised on over the past two decades. They are: improved technology (which enables the production and distribution of larger numbers of more attractive newspapers), steadily expanding literacy, better purchasing power, aggressive (profit-, power- and survival-driven) publishing, and political excitement.

NRS after NRS has brought news that is music to the ears of the Indian language press. According to NRS 2006, all the top ten most read dailies in India were Indian language newspapers, with their estimated readership ranging from 8.41 million to 21.17 million. Not surprisingly given the enormous diversities of India, circulation growth within the Indian language press has varied considerably across languages and States. Hindi dailies accounted for more than 40 per cent of total daily circulation in India and English language dailies for just over 10 per cent. Newspapers in languages such as Telugu, Assamese, Punjabi, and Urdu, starting from low bases, have also achieved dynamic growth rates. There is growth also in those language sectors, notably Gujarati and Malayalam, that had a higher base decades earlier.

— Photo: Vipin Chandren

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For the English language press, still the most resource-endowed sector within the Indian press, the challenge is one of consolidating gains and holding its place against rising Indian language challengers, competition from television, and potential competition from new media operations in a changing socio-economic, business, and political arena.

The 2007 annual report by PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) on the Indian Entertainment and Media Industry (E&M), titled A Growth Story Unfolds, projects that the print media will grow, at a 13 per cent compound annual growth rate, f rom the present size of Rs. 85 billion to Rs. 232 billion in 2011.

All the news media in India — the press, radio, broadcast television, and the new media — are in growth mode. In the developed world, the Internet, broadband, multi-media platforms, ‘convergence’ (already an old-fashioned word), and the ‘culture of the always on’ (to borrow a phrase coined by The New York Times) are eating into the future of printed newspapers. In an intriguing comment made earlier this year, the publisher of The New York Times went on record saying that he didn’t ‘know’ or ‘care’ whether his newspaper would be printing five years from now.

In his presentation for the capital markets, Mr. O’Reilly painted a gloomy future for broadcast television in the U.S. and U.K., highlighting the “contracting” viewership and the cannibalising impact of the internet. According to John Naughton, a British journalist and media guru, broadcast television, for several decades the “dominant organism” in the “media ecosystem,” is in “inexorable decline.” He explains that broadcast television in mature media markets is “being eaten from within” by narrowcast digital television and is pressured and threatened by IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) and other emerging technologies. Raising the rhetorical question, “Who will replace broadcast TV as the new dominant organism in our media ecosystem,” he offers this answer: “Simple: the ubiquitous Internet.”

New media impact

The new media are beginning to make a significant impact on newspapers and the practice of journalism in India. However, the ‘emerging centrality’ of the Internet — which, according to a PWC estimate, had only 32 million users, including 21 million active users, in the country in 2006 — seems some way off. It is true that we have time on our side but given the trends and the pressures on journalism, complacency is the last thing the Indian press needs. The long-term experience, set in a broader framework, makes it clear that the institution has performed with a good deal of competence, and even distinction, before and after Independence. Over six decades of freedom, Indian newspapers more than any other media have performed these invaluable democratic functions: the credible-informational, the critical-‘adversarial’-investigative, the educational, and the agenda-building.

Journalism needs to respond better than it is doing now to the challenge and opportunity of being relevant and read. This is an era of intensifying multi-media competition, back and forth communication, when the ‘always on’ culture is spreading, and readers and other ‘consumers’ of ‘media products’ are asserting themselves and, along with revolutionary technologies, are setting both the terms and the pace of change.

Journalism that wants to be relevant and read needs to be lively, provocative, visual, attractive to ‘see and feel,’ able to serve an ‘interlocking’ readership. Yes, it needs to be entertaining at times. But the future of Indian journalism will certainly be compromised — and the game lost — if it acquiesces in a ‘market-driven’ strategy, or rather fate, of being folded into E&M.

Time of uncertainty

Alan Rusbridger, Editor of The Guardian, speaks often these days of the disappearance of the ‘tablet of stone era journalism’ and its implications for newspapers and journalists. In an age of uncertainty, neither pessimi sm nor optimism would seem to be in order – because neither we nor the media and marketing gurus really know what the future holds. Doing internet journalism is an exciting challenge. We will be deceiving ourselves if we do not recognise that a key area of uncertainty is when and even whether journalism — full-fledged, done by real journalists, rich in content and form, versatile, able to attract the young, with seemingly limitless possibilities — will be supported on internet and other new media platforms by viable and profitable business models. But even if it seems at times that journalism as we have known it is riding into the sunset, it is our great professional and social responsibility to preserve its elements, its core values, and its soul.

N. Ram is the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and group publications.

Independent India at 60
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