Last week, I posted my article (Newspapers and the importance of underwear – Part I) on Facebook with the status update: What’s the connection between a newspaper and underwear? “They both become stale in a day?” responded my brother.
Pithy as it was, it made me think. That relationship with underwear is in danger of snapping. If newspapers do not undergo a drastic content overhaul, they will not last even a single day, they will be born stale. They are already pretty close to it, peddling stuff that has already been chewed up and spat out by TV/web.
Not just that, TV is beating newspapers to their own stories, showing them what a story is and how to hype it. Here are three recent examples that made ripples in the country:
1. Body search of President Kalam by Continental.
2. The deficient monsoon and threatened drought.
3. Scrapping of CBSE Class X Board exams.
The coverage of all the three stories followed a pattern that shows how print is conceding ground to TV. All the three stories were little single columns in print (Delhi newspapers). News channels lapped them up, played them up through the rest of the day and created quite a stir. Following morning, all newspapers played up these very same stories as lead or second lead.
Does that mean a story becomes big only when it passes through 24 hours of TV? Print is enormously more talented in its sweep, variety and depth of reportage, but has chosen to lean on TV’s weakness for survival rather than its own strengths. (As I have often said, TV is happy to keep print alive because the latter acts like its unpaid wire service.) I have not known of one paper that by design has decided to reduce yesterday’s headlines to just updates and pool all its best stories on Page One to send out a clear message: we are not yesterday’s TV! If this sounds like an outlandish idea, look at the lengths to which Time magazine is going to preserve its base. It has come up with ‘Mine’, a special, customised, experimental edition for about 50,000 readers.
Where are our ideas? Who is doing anything new in print? Remember, the last major churn was forced on the industry by The Times of India. We all complained, but slowly that content formulation found its way into all publications. Design was ramped up, content was dumbed down as we began to service the MTV generation with bits and bytes. The logic was that with the onslaught of 24x7 general entertainment TV, reading habits were changing and people preferred the quickies.
That formula has served print well for 20 years. But 10 years into it (around 2000) came 24x7 news television, which does a better job of the bits-and-bytes presentation of news 24 hours before print.
So, shouldn’t somebody get up and ask if it is time again for a churn? This question assumes significance in another context, too. We all assume, and rightly too, that the romance of reading will never die, so newspapers will be around for a long time. If, at this moment, our only argument for the survival of print is this “romance of reading”, then are we doing right by the “reading romantic” when we supply them the same glib stuff that TV doles out? For example, when a Michael Jackson dies and it has played out on TV, does a reading romantic attain nirvana with a scrappy 200-word wrap up (and a gigantic graphic that contains tidbits) or with brilliant prose that explores the magic and mystery of the man?
If it is correct to assume that the future newspaper reader will come to print for substance and for the pleasure of reading, it follows that the newspapers should be able to deliver substance and the pleasure of a good read. That is why we should ask ourselves if the content plan of the last 20 years has served its time. And if it’s time for us to move from dumbing down to ramping up content.
Mint is the only paper that has dared to be different. A paper that has a good balance between looks and substantial reading, Mint has even tried the unthinkable and come away the better for it. Its Saturday paper comes wrapped within ‘Lounge’, the weekend special, and the cover page of ‘Lounge’ is occupied by their columnists! It works because it gives readers some intellectual stimulation.
As it looks ahead to its future, print can take comfort from the fact that it is the only news content medium with a viable business model. Television and web news companies leak money like sieves. If you count the number of national news channels currently making money, you’ll find you have too many fingers!
Ditto for web news portals.
So, it might seem that as long as these two young mediums are struggling to find their feet, print will be safe in its perch. Wrong approach. The health of individual TV or web news companies should hardly be print’s concern. It is their combined potential to suck advertising away from print that should cause worry. It has taken time, but some western countries are seeing large exodus of the advertising buck to online, and there is no reason why it cannot happen in India sooner than later.
A combination of circumstances is converging to make life tough for print. The country is ready for a technological leapfrog with 3G just around the corner. In one stroke, the biggest impediment to profitable commerce on the web, net-connectivity, will be gone. We still do not have an idea about the affordability of 3G, but considering the competition in that space, it is fair to assume that affordability will not remain an issue for too long. The promise of content in-your-hand, the resurgence of web and the prospect of generations of youngsters going through life without contact with newsprint cannot be great news for print.
That brings us back to my underwear analogy for the last time. Yes, just like underwear, print will survive. But the waist that wears the underwear will shrink dramatically, so print will have to recast and resize. As in everything else, one-size-fits-all underwear is a myth. And, remember, somewhere along the way even underwear transformed into lingerie!
(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.)
Guest Column Newsmanic: Newspapers and the importance of underwear – Part I