For long, an idea of free newspaper circulation has been floated by media giants in India. More often, the idea has been dubbed as not too viable a proposition, considering the mechanics that drive Indian newspapers. Either the fear of advertisers backing out or the apprehensions stemming from the decline in print readership have held back the publishers.
Hormusji N Cama, Director, Bombay Samachar, holds a strong view on the floating prospect. Dismissing the word ‘free’, he said, “Newspaper cost is as good as free when they are being sold at prices lower than Rs 3. In any case, advertisers are subsidising the readers already. There is no concept as ‘free’. Free does not mean that readers do not have stump up, someone has to pay for it. But, if at all it has to be, it will depend on advertisers, if they want to bear the 100 per cent cost.”
Given a ringside view, there has been a considerable rise in the printing cost in India. Further to dampen the spirits, many feel that the recent slowdown and figures from IRS 2009 do not make a rosy picture for the proposition of free circulation. Above all, the statistics from IRS have been often criticised as a matter of conjecture.
Even if these figures were discounted, the moot question governing free circulation is whether they would be reaching the right group of readers and whether the advertiser would be getting the right value.
Sudha Natarajan, President and COO, Lintas Media Group, remarked, “We’ve had a very aggressive action in newspaper market in India. There have been price wars and papers have been available to practically nothing. Several years ago, TOI started with a price war in Bangalore. In India, it will be difficult to have an advertiser-funded publication. Abroad, it’s a medium that is past its prime and they are finding ways to keep it alive as people’s daily reading habits have declined. So, this is not the time to experiment with free circulation.”
Speaking on the viability of such proposals, Sandipan Deb, Editor-in-Chief, Open, noted, “The idea of circulating free broadsheets is too far fetched as the places where these publications would be put up are not too enterprising. Also, the paid newspapers would never go free unless the printing cost was to be borne by advertisers.”
However, in the rest of the world such as in London, free circulation has been working for a number of years now. Metro, a full-fledged daily newspaper, is circulated for free, particularly at tube stations. In Singapore, too, the broadsheet Today has been circulating for free and has been making a profit out of it. On the contrary, in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, dailies are being sold beyond Rs 6.
Dismissing the idea, Raj Kumar Jha, National Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather Action, said, “Free does not have a good respect in this country. It is only in countries like China or Singapore, where it is held in more esteem. China even has newspapers plastered on the wall. In India, free newspapers would only be collected by rag pickers. Paper pulp has value and if it is rolled into a packet, it may just become another racket!”