As various stakeholders are set to congregate at the Indian Newspaper Congress 2009, organised jointly by the Indian Newspaper Society and exchange4media, it’s fitting to discuss an issue that has being debated much in the West – Does print media, newspapers specifically, have a future?
If there’s no retrenchment of employees, then it’s either the trimming of circulation frequency (five days a week, instead of six or seven) or just shutting down editions. It’s a bloodbath out there and a couple of US journos I met at the Cannes adfest recently were even contemplating a career change. “There’s little else that I can do after having spent a decade and a half in this profession,” rued one of them, who is a mid-level magazine writer.
Back home in India, things aren’t that bad. Circulation and readership numbers may not be galloping and keeping pace with rising literacy, income and urbanisation levels, but they haven’t dipped dramatically either. Advertising sales are down, though that’s not going to be for too long. In any case, the prosperous among the established papers have seen good times, so except for the money squandered on indiscriminate expansion, there are no question marks about their existence. As for the not-very-well-circulated among the dailies, either they are working towards valuation or are in the process of getting gobbled up. There are also those who exist because of political clout and/or the monies being made out of real estate rentals.
So, do newspapers in India need to worry about competition from other media? Well, they’ve already lost the constituency of breaking news to 24x7 television channels. If it’s an early morning event, then you can expect our channels to milk the news dry by the end of the 10 pm bulletin. For instance, one can be sure that the news networks will squeeze every bit out of today’s Union Budget, but it’s not that people aren’t going to buy the papers tomorrow for the analyses. Perhaps, I wouldn’t buy all the pink papers as I would have some years ago.
It is not television alone, but the combined onslaught of television and online media that our newspapers need to worry about. Online offers the immediacy of television and the tradition of print, plus the unique advantages of unlimited space, interactivity and commerce. What changes the equations now is that the Internet is accessible on the go on cellphones and technology ensures that access levels aren’t a pain.
The problem is that most Indian media companies – from the newspaper and television space – haven’t cracked their online gameplan the way it ought to have been. The Times of India did try with Indiatimes and 8888, but it lost out to the likes of Rediff, Yahoo! and Hungama. It’s possible that companies with existing media properties find it difficult to adapt to the requirements of online. Hence, it has worked for some of the entities that have started in the recent past and have included the Web as part of their initial gameplan – like ibnlive.com and livemint.com, the online avatars of CNN-IBN and Mint, respectively.
Regrettably – and I can say this out of my personal experience in this space – most traditional newspaper managements do not understand the demands of the online space and most print and television reporters think a byline on the Web doesn’t mean much. To an extent, the journalists aren’t incorrect, as it is only when there is quality content on the Web – streaming 24x7 – that the medium will grow.
The fear is that if the print and television newswallahs do not embrace the Web soon enough, someone else will. I was witness to a techie-turned-web developer named Rajesh Jain make a fortune after doing a superlative job with a slew of websites fronted by the Indiaworld portal. Jain sold his business and many years later set up MyToday for mobile content, which again is a runaway success. He knew his technology well and figured that content is a commodity for which he doesn’t need award-winning journalists to write copy.
Things work differently for the new generation of media consumers. If the content served by an entity is of top quality, credible and/or entertaining, they’ll lap it up without necessarily looking at the pedigree of the organisation.
The demands of the multiple media regime have changed. Soon, Twitter, which has a regulation of messages being not more than 140 characters in length, could emerge as a potent mode of news delivery. To an extent it already has. Blogs have democratised media. A blogger, Amit Varma, was seen with The Times of India Managing Director Vineet Jain in the BusinessWeek’s list of 50 most powerful Indians in 2009. Tech companies accord bloggers the same status as senior journalists of mainstream media when releasing new products.
If newspaper companies do not see the writing on the wall soon enough, they’ll find themselves being overtaken by bit players. For, unlike medicine and law, you don’t require special education to be a journalist. There’s no stopping your neighbour from turning into a star scribe, thanks to online media, and run a successful a media operation like any of the biggies. Jaago Re!
(The views here are my own. Now, you can also tweet me your comments @pmahesh and catch random jottings at #MixedMedia at http://www.twitter.com/pmahesh.)