The third session of the Indian Newspaper Congress 2008, which was held in the Capital on May 16, saw an interesting debate on whether we are headed for a free newspaper era. The Congress was organised by the Indian Newspaper Society in collaboration with exchange4media.
Giving his take on the topic, Hormusji Cama, Publisher, Bombay Samachar, said, “Newspaper is a serious tool for dissemination of news. It has distribution and production costs to it. We have to decide whether a free newspaper would give news or whether it would be a product that is selling other products.”
He added, “A free newspaper would be a product in which every square centimetre is paid for. Advertisers would want advertisements as well as free editorial space. A free newspaper then can’t be a factual rendition of news. No one would want to read it.”
Sunil Mutreja, President-Marketing, Amar Ujala, stressed that in a country like India, free newspaper could not work. He explained, “For any business to be free, you have to provide free newsprint. However, in niches, the concept might work.”
Bringing in the client perspective, Paulomi Dhawan, Head-Commerce, Raymonds, said that we were in a ‘near free era’ in which the advertiser was the loser. “We are the ones who are funding the free news era. The reader gets three newspapers for the price of one. How long will the client pay for it?” she asked.
Dhawan further said that the print industry in India was ready for growth and this growth would be fueled by growing literacy and the young India. Pointing out the challenges, she said, “There are a lot of penetrative challenges apart from the pricing and content issues.”
Vikram Sakhuja, CEO, GroupM India, was also not in favour of the idea of newspapers going free. He said, “The minute you go free, you have discounted the brand big time, because when you are a big brand, you can extract a premium from the customer. You make something free, it loses value. The entry and exit barriers become zero.” He urged the publishers to be more confident about their product.
PN Balji of Today newspaper talked about how Today had succeeded despite being based on the free model format in Singapore. “From day one we decided that although we are free, the public won’t say so because the content would be good. Content couldn’t have been downmarket,” he said.
According to Balji, for such a model to work, it was important to have a ‘double agent’ – that is, a person who was an editor as well as the publisher. “He should also be trained in journalism and believe in it. Only then will he know where to draw the line,” he averred.
Talking about the distribution strategy, Balji said that they did not go for the ‘mass rapid transit’ but did distribution by stealth. “We went to select homes – upmarket, universities and colleges – places where we could convince the advertisers,” he added.