The Reading Room

The irresistible rise of Indian newspapers

While the rest of us are rocked by recessionary woes that continue to grow, the newspaper industry in India continues to be in rude health, an optimistic story of growth. As the FT reported earlier this month, 2012 was regarded as a bit of a poor year there as newspaper and magazine revenues only rose by 7 per cent. Well, they are used to 15 per cent growth and ad revenue has also been “fairly handsome” in the past decade, according to DD Purkayastha, chief exec of India media group megalith ABP.

Meanwhile, American news ad revenues have fallen every year since 2005 and are roughly half what they were back then. But while developed Western economies see traditional media’s grip weakening, India looks set to be on course for continued growth, with print ad revenues predicted to grow around 10 per cent annually. This is in part fed by India’s 1.3 billion population continuing to swell and literacy spread, with more young people developing a taste for reading newspapers.

International News Media Association (INMA), which has presence in 82 countries, held its 7th INMA South Asian conference in New Delhi, earlier this month, entitled “Print: Thriving in the Age of Digital”, which was attended by top CEOs, editors of Indian newspapers and delegates from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Europe and the US. INMA’s CEO, Earl J Wilkinson, told delegates: “The newspaper industry in the West declined not because people didn’t want to read the papers, but a wrong decision on the part of big media companies to focus their energies on the Internet. But now they are realising that print is here to stay.”

While in the West, as the Washington Post had pointed out during its recent sale, “the rise of the Internet” had “created a massive wave of competition for traditional news companies… triggering mergers, bankruptcies and consolidation among the owners of print and broadcasting properties.” Jacob Mathew, Executive Editor of Malayala Manorama, told INMA, in taking up this narrative: “But in India, the story is different. In a country that’s witnessing a literacy and technological boom at the same time, using technology may become important, but good content will always remain the king. As long as we are focused on meaningful journalism and incisive and engaging storytelling, papers will continue to be the harbingers of trust they always were.”

Smartphone sales are on the up with nearly 10 million bought in India in the first three months of this year so there is no shortage of ways to access media there. Indian newspapers are not perceived as old fashioned by their young audiences. Equally, this new generation of readers have not been subjected to a constant stream of scandals and inquiries involving journalists accused of phone hacking, blagging and bribing public officials, as their TV-reared counterparts in the UK have.

They have had a comparator though in the Radia tapes controversy of 2010 which exposed the symbiotic relationship among lobbyists, politicians, businessmen and journalists which has gone some way to erode public trust in a partisan media. While it underscored the fact that paid news is often the norm as most news channels, newspapers, media houses and publishing houses are owned or controlled by politicians of different parties, it appears to have had neglilgible impact on circulation.

As India’s broadsheet Business Standard columnist Vanita Kohli-Khandekar remarked this week, post-Independence, newspapers tended to be bankrolled by benevolent businessmen who were not motivated solely by profit. Newspaper growth really happened in earnest from 2005, after foreign direct investment (FDI) norms were liberalised in 2002. Now the Indian newspaper industry is the second largest in the world and one of the fastest growing. Vanita said: “It is also the most profitable part of the Rs 83,000-crore media and entertainment industry. The challenges have changed now – they now pertain to building organisations, handling growth and changing advertiser expectations. They also include competing in a market in which all media – TV, digital, radio – is booming simultaneously.”

That’s a nice problem for Indian publishers to have, and while digital media accounts for anywhere between three and five per cent of their revenues right now, their focus remains, not wrongly, on building scale across India. So will digital “do” for print in the same way as it is perceived to have been doing in the West? Vanita is not alone in predicting “the massacre, if there is one, is more than 10 years away.” Meanwhile, for Indian newspapers, the only way is up.

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