It was some time in 1999. The Internet had just hit the country, sweeping everybody off their feet. Revving up and down that new information highway, everybody was busy announcing the death of the newspaper.
In that period of frenzied crystal ball-gazing, one of Mumbai’s Rotary Clubs decided to hold a memorial service for print media. As Resident Editor of Indian Express, Mumbai, I was the print journalist they would commiserate with.
The question came up repeatedly: Is it over for newspapers?
“With apologies to the ladies in the audience,” I had told the Rotary Clubites, “I will respond with a dirty analogy. Fashion changed from the long flowing gowns to full-length gowns, to skirts, to knee length skirts, to minis to micro-minis; from full pants to capris to shorts to hot pants and what have you. But through all this chopping and changing, one thing never went out of fashion: underwear.”
“Newspapers,” I declared with a flourish, “are the underwear of the news business. Intimate, personal and bare essentials, they will never be out of fashion, will never be discarded.”
I don’t know if the audience was as impressed with my line as I was with myself, but the much-feared invasion was over before it began. The Internet bubble burst all too soon. It had come to war unprepared. Without speed (of download) and penetration (of PCs), it did nothing more than shock, awe and perish in its own exuberance.
Largely because it came away unscathed from that attack, print did not feel compelled to change much and returned to business as usual. All the big players, who poured monies into web editions quickly, sucked them out, maintaining bare-bones operations. The would-be conqueror was condemned to life as a parasite of print. (That situation continues even now, though web editions have been spruced up in recent years.)
The second, and the more serious, invasion of print’s news monopoly came almost immediately in the form of 24x7 TV news. It was widely believed that non-stop news would finish what the web couldn’t start: make newspapers irrelevant and hence, unviable. Just the opposite happened. The period of television news explosion also proved to be the golden period of growth for print. If you stack up the top 10 news channel brands against the top 10 newspaper brands, the latter will run away with all the awards for growth in reach, numbers, revenue and profitability in the last 10 years. New launches, more editions, more colour, more pullouts and more pages – all that at less cost to the consumer – meant that print created multiple-newspaper homes. Circulation and readerships soared like never before. India was bucking worldwide trends of severe pressure on circulations. Print didn’t just survive TV news, it thrived.
News channels had the potential to hurt print big, but print got away with little or no damage. Not all of this happened because print offered a planned response to the onslaught of TV, but because providence played its part yet again in the form of economic boom. The TV onslaught was numbed by a decade of rah-rah growth, which ensured there was enough advertising revenue for everybody. Print did concede larger slices of the advertising pie to TV, but the pie itself became so big that the absolute revenues kept going up (again, at a time when the reverse was happening world over).
Here’s perhaps a better way of saying this: If the TV onslaught had happened without the concomitant eco boom, print would have hurt more. It wouldn’t have been able to afford a fraction of the costs of the huge numbers game it played (more editions, more pages and more circulation). It would have been forced to come up with more content innovations rather than marketing innovations. But the economy, along with the rising literacy levels and the fact that we remained, and remain, one step behind the world on PC penetration, ensured that print’s happy story continued.
Print was second time lucky, too.
Luck is never a reliable war weapon, though. In the euphoria of growing numbers, increasing launches and growing advertising revenues, print may have been fooled into believing that it dealt with TV, but it was essentially at war with itself. This war within the medium, rather than across the medium, meant that print made no ‘shift’ in content to deal with television news. No standout content strategy targeted to deal with the fact that print would forever be 24 hours too late. The last serious directional change in content was forced on the industry by the runaway success of (a dumbed down) The Times of India. Neither before then, nor since then, has there been any discernible or deliberate directional shift in content.
No, I am not grudging print the benefits it got out of a good economy, why shouldn’t it? TV brought with it two distinct dangers to print – flight of advertising and staleness of content. At an existential level, the first was the bigger and more immediate problem. Luckily, this problem was tackled effectively by the economy. The bigger threat having been neutralised, print did not pay much attention to the content challenge thrown by TV.
Thus, a good 10 years after TV, newspapers are still content to fill their front pages with yesterday’s regurgitated news. Rather than play to their strength of incisive and exhaustive reportage, they have confined themselves to filling in the blanks left by last night’s prime time. By its very nature, TV news has annexed substantial print territory, but with its prohibitive cost structure, it has remained just an “event management industry” rather than a news generator. TV hardly reports that which does not happen in public domain, whereas print’s ability to dig up that stuff is widely acknowledged, if completely underused right now.
Yet, print chose only the design-and-presentation route to tackle TV rather than lean on its content superiority. When the going was good, it didn’t matter. But now recession is here. It seems like the industry will take a while to recover from this tough turn of fate. And by the time it deals with recession, a new and bigger challenge will be at hand: the digital age. The threat of generations of youth getting by without holding printed news is very real and can only get worse in the next decade.
Print cannot afford to be blasé about its future anymore, you know, the “romance of print will never die” kind of argument. Romance is a strong reason for print’s survival, but it won’t be enough reason. Does that mean I have changed my mind about the longevity and infallibility of underwear?
I’m saying that print would perhaps have been better prepared for the challenges of the digital age if it had been made to sweat a bit more in the TV age.
I’m saying newspapers cannot play the game in the coming decade the way they played it the last decade.
And I’m saying it’s about time we asked ourselves what kind of underwear the digital generation would want to wear…
(More next week on the importance of underwear.)
(Venkat, as the author is called, insists the argument is his own and that no one else, such as exchange4media, should be hauled up for blasphemy.)