To say that it was only expected, is to betray complete ignorance about the ferocity this time. The cover-price of Rs. 1.50 on the weekdays may give you a sense of déjà vu. No harm in that. But if, therefore, you conclude that the dramatis personae will play out the same old timeworn script, look again.
Refer the latest ABC report (July-December 2001). TOI sells 8,79,617 of its Delhi edition. HT on the other hand sells 9,20,492. HT's tenuous lead of forty odd thousand represents the great strides TOI has made to bridge the gap. To achieve this feat, the TOI went as far as Kolkata, Patna and Bhubaneshwar besides the relatively close by Chandigarh to print and sell its 'Delhi edition'. Not to be left behind, HT went to almost twice as many locations, including Ranchi, Bhopal, Raipur and Jaipur to sell its 'Delhi edition'. Upcountry sales to dress-up Delhi edition numbers is nothing new. Even while it wooed the Delhi readers aggressively, TOI has, traditionally, enjoyed an advantage over HT in the upcountry sales. HT's favourite sales-pitch against TOI used to be accusing it of "selling in the North-East to grow the numbers for Delhi edition". Later, HT perhaps decided to deny TOI even a pyrrhic victory. Hence, HT made a foray into almost every state capital of the North and a few in the East. Having spread all over, both seem to have realized what they always knew, that the advertising moolah comes not by running around the countryside. It is right here in Delhi. Hence, the focus this time is not the upcountry sales.
So, if you look at just the city-sales, HT's circulation in Delhi is at 5,50,393. The TOI circulation for Delhi is a mere 50,000 short at 5,00,114. Rumour has it that Mr. R Sundar (Director - Times Group) has been given the mandate to go all-out and bridge the gap. When contacted last, he reminded that the gap is steadily narrowing in both the ABC as well as the NRS. "The current push is meant to further accelerate the process," he averred.
HT on Saturday did not meekly follow the TOI lead. It took the battle a little further. On Saturday last, while announcing a price-cut to equal the TOI offer, it referred to the Sunday edition and promised its readers a "surprise". Sunday edition revealed the surprise. The edition had a lower cover price of Rs. 2.75 instead of normal Rs. 3.50. Besides, there is a 'what's the password contest' only for the Delhi-ites and the NCR residents. The hurry can be gauged by the fact that there are no contest details or prizes on offer. The contest starts from 14th of July so something will obviously be ready by then. The TOI, who sell at Rs. 2.90 on Sundays and had not announced any price-cut for the edition, offered "more good news" to its readers on Sunday by reducing it to two bucks. Again, a serious attempt at preempting competition and denying them any advantage. Both, HT and TOI, seem to be falling over each other to give the readers "more value for (less) money". To say that such generosity is rare in these times is no exaggeration. It is not even an understatement.
Vikram Sakhuja, (MD - MindShare Fulcrum Central Asia) feels that these exercises do result in circulation growth but do not add too many new readers to the medium (read 'print'). He says "it is evident from the latest NRS which shows publication reach as constant though dailies have increased marginally."
He also feels that the circulation growth goes towards increasing the number of two-newspaper readers instead of bringing fresh readers into the fold. He says that the readers had accepted well the cover-price of two-bucks for the dailies and therefore, "does not foresee any major gain this time in the circulation for any players in the NCR region." When asked as to how do these price-based circulation wars impact the industry, he looked concerned. "If taking down the cover price is compensated by increasing the advertising rates, then the practice is a bad one. By taking up ad rates and not increasing the overall base of the print, they will lose out on Advertisers. It will be like killing the goose that laid golden eggs"
Cover price is certainly subsidized by the advertising dough. But there is another issue too. Media economy is hugely vulnerable to such games that the big boys of media play. Both HT and TOI were vehemently opposing FDI in the print medium. One of the arguments was that it would hurt our fledgling democracy by driving out the plurality of options. The logic was that the big white chief would come riding on his mega dollars and buyout or drive away the small and marginal players. The cover price wars do exactly the same. They do to the competing publications what dumping does to the Indian industry. It is driving a vital and vibrant sector of our economy sick. In neighboring Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, English dailies sell for equivalent of over Ten Bucks. At current cover prices and the size/content comparison, newspapers are the cheapest in India and do not recover even a fraction of the cost that goes in. It is not that the reader cannot afford or the market cannot bear. Even in Patna, the Hindi dailies sell Rs.3.50, and sell in lakhs. The strategy built around cover-price wars is to bleed the competition weak and then milk the market. A market devoid of options is not good for the consumers. That means readers, employees, advertisers, vendors and professionals, alike. Democracy included.