Stop writing the print epitaph.

By | October 27, 2016

Last week, newspapers were in focus. I read this article ‘What If the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?’ by Jack Shafer, POLITICO’s senior media writer and ‘The Slow, Painful Death of the Media’s Cash Cow’ by Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View columnist.

They made some valid points. The inference was too simplistic. According to them ‘Newspapers got it all wrong in extending their content on to the web without and instead of strengthening their offline product’. A digital strategy in the absence of an effective revenue model was anyway a non-starter. Additionally, the free access to news (content) via search engines further weakened the already non-viable net strategy. ‘Apps’ and ‘Digital first’ became the buzz-word in print industry.

The above articles have been written from a US perspective, but I find it true in Indian conditions.

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The digital wave in India still suffers from an Accessibility, Availability and Affordability issue. The Indian audience is sick and tired of comical “breaking news” oriented treatment by Digital and TV. It seems, we have morphed into instant gratification fed voyeuristic bastards is no longer a secret.

There is a general aversion to accessing news and detailed analysis on a mobile or laptop’s screen, across generations. Even the so-called new-generation is averse to the idea. The result, the audiences that advertisers seek in the “UnMetro” are better accessible through newspapers. Print continues to champion the cause of ‘Accountability Journalism’ and Government support, criticism, local happenings and developmental projects.

Unfortunately, the Print Industry instead of taking proactive efforts towards survival, has been suicidal in pushing itself. They pressed for the Ventilator and checked into the ICU, for a treatment needing a General Practitioner.

‘Digital First’ and the multi-purpose newsroom for synergistic leveraging internal capability across media, has created more issues. It affected the way content is now being sourced and presented to the audience. In many places, Print titles tried to imbibe the so-called new line of thinking and ended with lower engagement levels. Print forgot to concentrate on reader engagement. It in its desire to sustain, Print provided too much content with shortened analysis.

Print in India is still growing. The circulation is increasing and hopefully so is readership. Advertising is still healthy for the Print leaders. If one believes FICCI report on media and entertainment, Digital is still years away from becoming the second largest media. Meanwhile, it has to prove itself and sort out the issue of credibility of impressions. A lot is happening in this area. However, I am a strong believer that Print still has a lot to go for it. More-over it is possible to give Print another blip with rejuvenating steroids.




So, when, Jack Shafter (referring to a report by Chyi and Tenenboim) points out the top 51 US newspapers having failed to show any growth, but have also reported drop in online readership in the recent past, it seems as a verdict on the future of Print in India.

We forget the lifestyle, the cultural difference, the social nuances before blindly following the western trends.

India has the advantage of being behind the curve, at least in case of Print. There are lessons to be learnt. It is surprising that even with these advance warnings, the Print industry in India walked into the trap. Aware of the pace of accelerating adaptation of western culture across areas in India, it expected the media ( primarily newspaper) to follow the trend.

Was that logical?

Taking a strategic call Print moved in, giving its existing offline staff additional responsibility of online space. The approach was a simplistic view of the situation. It was just ‘News’. Print published their digital avatars, believing that a 7-15-day training was all it needed. This approach further compounded the mistake.

Meanwhile, they continued to allow technology to define their space.

In the past, Print did not react when overnight the new technology changed the nature of OOH media. The new improved printing and vinyl, allowed advertisers to have a fresh affair with OOH.

Print repeated the mistake, continuing to focus and promote the myth of newspapers being the best medium for tactical announcement and faster reach built up. Brand building and differentiation be damned.

Moreover, post the IRS/ MURIC fiasco, Print industry has been on a fast suicidal track. It failed to close, commit or create a unifying currency of readership measurement. The revenue eco-system pushed them back to an unscientific era. Suddenly once again regional feedbacks, circulation and relationship became the currency of decision making.

Does the industry have time on hand? Can something happen?

I do not expect any miracle. However, there is time for Print in India to slow down its mad rush to dooms day. It has been pushing to capture the new generation on the smaller screen and to push the offline readers to on-line versions. All efforts have been halfhearted. Not that it would have made any difference.

The category image has taken beatings in the last few years. We are likely to follow the western behavior, where the offline readers have migrated to the aggregators like Yahoo, Google and CNN (Chyi and Tenenboim).

Let me step back and share an incident.

It is a comment made by a reader in an interaction with a leading newspaper. That young gentleman spoke with fire and vengeance. He told the newspaper team ‘You must feel obliged that I buy your newspaper, as there is nothing, I find that is worth my attention and interest ’.

He left a pregnant question that went unanswered.

Can you provide me a newspaper with rich content? Content that will make me involved and engrossed. Something, that will force me to repair my crumbling relationship with newspapers. Something that will make me read the newspaper from column to column. Make me refer to it again in the evening to read. If that is too much to expect, can you at least make me carry it to work, to read it during my break. Why must it die within 20-22 minutes?




There was nothing shocking about this comment and question. Content is the king and reader the queen. It is a time to look inward and magical create something for such intense readers? However, some of the leading newspapers went head-on in search of a new lucrative path of native advertising. Readers now question the credibility of content. This may have the worst impact on the print industry. The reader is not averse to such content. All they want is for the publication to specify and clearly highlight content of this nature, so that they can consume it accordingly.

Many newspapers have tried creating new newspaper navigation rules for their readers, but the efforts have been sparse and sporadic. It included the shift from ‘Readership from circulation’ to ‘Circulation from readership’. ‘Happy Mondays’ by Dainik Bhaskar, the retail geographical focused division by Eenadu, the creation of a phenomenon called ‘Mumbai times’ (interesting content) and ‘Mumbai mirror’ by Times of India, the education and development columns by Dainik Jagran, the niche rich content by Mint, the editorial focus by DNA and the progressive social campaigns by Hindustan Times, TOI, Bhaskar, Jagran and Patrika are few such examples. Unfortunately, every success bred complacency.

Meanwhile, the experiment with online version continued.

Was the online version ant different from offline version? The answer is an empathetic ‘NO’.

Newspapers tried short cuts. They created a mirror image in e-newspapers. An experience that was found less than satisfactory by the new and old readers across generations.

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There was nothing shocking about this comment and question. Content is the king and reader the queen.

Is it not time to look inward and magically create something for such intense readers? However, some of the leading newspapers went head-on in search of a new lucrative path of native advertising. Readers now question the credibility of content. This may have the worst impact on the print industry. The reader is not averse to such content. All they want is for the publication to specify and clearly highlight content of this nature, so that they can consume it accordingly.

Many newspapers have tried creating new newspaper navigation rules for their readers, but the efforts have been sparse and sporadic. It included the shift from ‘Readership from circulation’ to ‘Circulation from readership’. ‘Happy Mondays’ by Dainik Bhaskar, the retail geographical focused division by Eenadu, the creation of a phenomenon called ‘Mumbai Times’ (interesting content) and ‘Mumbai Mirror’ by Times of India, the education and development columns by Dainik Jagran, the niche rich content by Mint, the editorial focus by DNA and the progressive social campaigns by Hindustan Times, TOI, Bhaskar, Jagran and Patrika are few such examples. Unfortunately, every success bred complacency.

Meanwhile, the experiment with the online version continued.

Was the online version any different from offline version? The answer is an empathetic ‘NO’.

Newspapers tried short cuts. They created a mirror image in e-newspapers. An experience that was found less than satisfactory by the new and old readers across generations.

I have reasons to believe that Print has a lot more to offer. It will be here for long. Remember, the print readers are the loyal kind and on-line version readers like a flirtatious adventure.

I feel vindicated when Chyi says, ‘But for all of its faults, the newspaper remains a superior format and much would be lost if our neglect caused its premature demise’… she captures the situation in a nicely crafted analogy. ‘Newspaper had been running the equivalent of a very nice high-end steakhouse. Then McDonald’s moved to town and started selling untold numbers of cheap hamburgers. Newspaper thought, “Let’s compete with that,” and dropped the steak for a hamburger, even though it had no real expertise in producing hamburgers. What they should have done, improve the steak product’.

Megan McArdie also takes a pot shot at with this question. What do you do when you’ve been given a death sentence? Do you live your remaining time to the fullest, or do you spend that time taking long-shot chances at a cure?

Maybe, it is now that Print should stand united. I know it is tough but not impossible. It is a critical need of the industry. A first step of collective action is essential. Print needs to find newer ways to connect with clients and re-educate them on effective use of print. Encourage experimentation and even promote creativity. Re-evaluate and check on unwanted unwarranted ineffective innovation. Many times, the innovation and over advertising is so blatant that it creates a bad reading experience.

For a moment, Print should stop thinking of milking the cow dry and give it enriched fodder to fight the times ahead. Quickly move in and revamp of readership measurement. Move on for studies that measure media amplification or multiplier impact. Take a rate freeze and rationalise rates. Stop that irrationally persistent upward climbing rates that look good only in the rate card. Get back some sanctity on rates. Go all out with rewards, awards to educate clients and agencies in the craft of effective print communication. Find ways or at least encourage clients to run long duration brand building campaigns to reduce the tactical topical pressure and perception. Print can do itself some good by offering incentives for brand building campaigns.

Will this ever happen? I have my own doubts.

On my side, I am not imagining things. I know a few of publishers in the past did try venturing into this area, but the individualistic attempts failed to break client’s inertia or pick up momentum.

For the next twelve months, can the industry leaders take a 10 paisa hike on cover price? Use this additional money to fund collective initiatives. We will be looking at a corpus of more than Rs 90 crore.

It sounds impossible. Here everyone has doubts. The environment is not trust-friendly. Increase in cover price will definitely impact circulation, but it will also reduce the financial burden. It will make funds available. It can help streamline advertising rates. It can take the fringe readers out of the equation. It can upset the ruddi (scrap sale) economics. The truly strong newspapers with real reader’s interest and engagement will definitely emerge stronger from such an act.

Dreams exist. The reality keeps questioning them. I am reminded of A G Krishnamurthy’s quote ‘To realise a dream; you need to dream first’.

In reality, the choice before the newspapers was never simple. Print was playing a forced hand. Few of the decisions that today seems wrong, were logical at that time. One can’t really find fault with them.

Meanwhile, the industry talent pool remains incestuously limited. There is pressure of talent retention. The younger lot seems to be shunning print. The oldies work within the bias of experience, expectations and exceptions.

I have no idea, how this can be challenged, but it is something that the industry needs to tackle. Inaction will only define the path we are willingly choosing to walk.

Print abroad has given up on the fight without a protest.

Should India do the same?

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