In what could be an indicator of difficult times ahead for the print media industry in the country, Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL) has closed its weekend newspaper The Times of India Crest. The last edition of the paper was on July 20, but a formal communication regarding the closure wasn’t made until the last few days of the final publication.
The media group, which publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times, started Crest in October 2009. It was positioned as a weekend paper with long-form stories aimed at readers interested in in-depth reports on science, environment, lifestyle and politics. Its extensive, nearly 2,000-words articles had come as relief for readers who wanted a break from the tedium and monotony that a daily newspaper may bring. Moreover, it had started with a value-for-money cover price of Rs 6 for a 40-page issue. Unusual stories targeted at niche readers slowly led it to make a welcomed space for itself in the industry demanding innovation in the wake of digital revolution. Extraordinary stories such as Indian farmers out to conquer the world with the backing of the government and the revamping of text books, besides popular articles on women and kids as well as sports in the middle of the paper and not at the end, made it an attractive deal for the audience.
When it was launched on September 26, 2009, TOI and Crest Editor Jaideep Bose had written: “It has often been said that reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. We read for different reasons — to be informed, to be educated, for pleasure, for peace of mind. Reading can quicken the pulse, equally it can soothe the soul. It provides answers, it provokes questions. Francis Bacon, the philosopher-scientist said, ‘Reading maketh a full man’, which is perhaps why a sophisticated mind is both an object of desire and of envy.”
He further wrote: “What role does a newspaper play in intellectual blossoming? It informs, it tries to educate, and it hopes to broaden horizons. Increasingly though, the media finds itself under attack for pandering to popular taste. As the world’s largest-selling English newspaper, with a circulation of four million, The Times of India endeavours to address a rainbow coalition of interests and sensibilities. The paper packs in hundreds of stories every day, so there’s something of significance for everyone.”
Despite the promising note, Crest’s circulation slowly shrank, along with the pages to 20. As the value-for-money proposition became less attractive, it lost loyal advertisers despite being part of one of the largest media groups in the country. And even though it had its loyal readers who admired the paper for its diversity and quality, the shutters had to be pulled downed in a clear indication that in today’s time, it is the market investment and revenue that counts. The TOI ran this confirmation few days before the last edition:
“Ever since word got out that this weekend would be the TOI Crest edition’s swan song, we have been flooded with messages and mails from readers saying how sad they were that their favourite weekend paper was closing. News websites as well as social media have resonated with similar sentiments, describing Crest as “much-liked and respected”, “compelling”, “rich and diverse”, “admired for its quality”, “thoughtful and intelligent”... When we started Crest about four years ago, we did so quietly, without any fanfare; it was meant to be a niche, small circulation paper which could devote the kind of space to trends and features, the main edition of TOI could not. We were surprised by the number of discerning readers our aquamarine broadsheet attracted; so many people said, “We read it through the week”. Circulation ballooned beyond our wildest expectations.”
And then was the moment of truth: “Alas, for any venture to be self-sustaining, revenues need to at least match costs; critical acclaim alone cannot keep it alive forever,” he added.
Ironically, the closure comes at a time when The Times of India is picking up steam for its 175thanniversary – an unparalleled milestone in the Indian news publishing history. Last year, The New Yorker had carried a two-page piece on Samir and Vineet Jain, who run the TOI, in an attempt to decode the success of the Indian newspaper industry at a time when profits have been declining the world over. It credited their innovations in form of private-treaty agreements with some advertisers and paid advertorials for its high circulation. These innovations came especially handy when digital revolution was undermining the business models that see consumers pay for print news. The paper also compared the declining West’s newspaper industry with India, and argued the rise here was “fuelled by strong economic growth and demand from an emerging urban and literate middle class that is enjoying higher incomes and rising standards of living”.
But this was not enough. According to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, between 2005 and 2009 the number of paid-for daily newspapers in India jumped by 44 per cent to 2,700 and the total number of newspapers rose by 23 per cent to more than 74,000. In 2008, India overtook China to become the leader in paid-for daily circulation, with 110 million copies sold each day. The statistics shows how dependent are newspapers on revenues that are driven by advertising. And it was this lack of adequate advertising support that became the primary reason behind the decision on closing down the Crest.
However, this leads us to debate if long-term journalism is dependent not on its readers, but advertisers. Gone are the days when newspapers were the soul of the country – run even if in losses, to reach the masses not just with the news but opinions and inspirations. In the age of globalisation and liberalisation, market is a major factor in any industry; it is the revenues that rule, so much so that advertisers are often found dictating terms when it comes to news. Advertisers’ premium even for a product with brand value now determines whether it is printed or goes down the dumps.
There is no doubt that adequate research support could have forced changes in Crest’s content, design, as well as pricing. Most importantly, it could have brought in more advertisers at better yields. But it seems no one was driven to take the plunge to have the edition stay; not even for readers who immersed themselves in long weekend reading that covered a whole gamut of topics.
The author is Chairman and Editor-in-Chief, exchange4media Group