One of the key highlights of the Indian Newspaper Congress (INC) 2009, organised by the Indian Newspaper Society and the exchange4media Group on July 10, was the Keynote Address by Chief Guest Dr Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs, Government of India. By his own admission, Tharoor is perhaps the only Minister who grew up hearing stories of the INS meetings. Courtesy his family, he developed, an “early and abiding passion for this industry that had brought everyone together at the INC”. He spoke on the growth of the newspaper industry from the DAK editions and the old ways of printing, and in the process set the stage to speak on the trends of today that can be extrapolated for the future.
Tharoor took cognizance of the fact that the print industry had had its share of bad news in the year and that included the likes of proposed launches being scrapped, people being sacked, or cuts in salaries, print runs reduced, newspaper replacing glazed printing and so on. However, he chose to focus on the trends that went beyond the bad news.
Growth Story Continues
According to Tharoor, the one point that no one could get away from was the fact that the increasing circulation in India remained despite all the other bad news. “The growth in literacy, compounded with the growth in the spending patterns, suggests that we have one extraordinary exception. Contrast this with the US, where many publications are either shutting down or just going digital, and there is no comparison. The Times of India claims to be the largest circulated newspaper in the world. That is something that could not have been said two decades back. Dainik Jagran is the largest read daily in any language.”
The next point that emanated from this was that if historical trends had to be observed, the language publishers were likely to see more growth. “The transformation in the last five decades is the sign for the future, and this is where the focus of the industry is going to be,” said Tharoor.
He added that magazines, too, were flourishing, and that he expected to see the proliferation that the domain had been seeing. He spoke of the emergence of facsimile editions and also highlighted the fact that despite the economic bad news, entrepreneurs were still coming in and that the media space still seemed to attract people.
Business Models Evolve
Tharoor also deliberated on whether the industry could explore other business models that could be brought in to compensate the limitations of the current economics of the space. The situation of the largest making more money than the others; the international costs of newsprint; factors like distribution being vulnerable to processes, including even aspects like transport and some of the other such points led to interesting questions on the business of being a newspapers, and what could be done in these areas to grow the business.
Another area that Tharoor threw light on was online publishing. He said, “The online publishing space is growing remarkably even though no one would be making any money there just yet. But we have to recognise that in India, Internet penetration is very slow. On the optimist side, it is 5 per cent, and this compares to 93 per cent in the US. This is both a challenge and an opportunity.”
He explained that while this pointed to how there were fewer numbers in this space, it also implied that the potential of economic growth was enormous.
Content Revolution, but there’s still miles to go
Tharoor stated that there had been a remarkable difference in the content seen today from what was seen in the 60s. He said, “The publications today are unrecognisable from the ones that I grew up reading. There was no real engagement in political coverage, and there are many reasons for that. However, today there is more depth, range and complexity in the way Indian newspapers are covering events of national and political importance. But there is always scope for improvement.”
Tharoor also observed that at one level, Indian publications were still covering the world from a colonial mindset. He said, “There are some real questions on why the regurgitation of trivia should continue to appeal the audiences. Newspapers have reduced the space and seriousness with which they cover world affairs. India is no longer thriving behind protectionist barriers. Today, the livelihood of newspaper readers depends on markets far away, and on the conflicts and vested interests and competition of foreign markets. Indian readers are not getting enough of that.”
He said that this cannot be left to a realm of specialists only, and went on to explain that in a sense, 9/11 was a wake up call for the American media, who too were “self-obsessed”. He said, “The people there couldn’t relate to why that had happened, and that it was possible that the fire at one end of the global village could sear through the steel of the tallest buildings at the other end of the village.”
Tharoor ended his address by stating that India was dependant on the rest of the world, but in a much more positive and that the news media should open its minds to the broader horizons that lay beyond. The attempt should be in seeing how the country can be engaged with the rest of world. “Let us please try and remember to keep the flame flourishing so that the society is competitive, focussed and triumphant in the 21 century world.”
The event partner was Encompass.
Indian Newspaper Congress 2009: Long live the news