'Newspaper circulation is almost back to normal in southern India'
In the latest edition of ‘Go Dakshin’ series, panellists discussed the impact of COVID-19 on print media in South India
"Dakshin is entirely different from what is happening in Uttar and Paschim. Our circulation is not affected as much as other areas. There is some disturbances in urban areas, but rural isn’t affected at all,” said KRP Reddy, Director-Advertising and Marketing, Sakshi Group, while discussing the topic ‘Print: Emerging Stronger Post Covid-19’ at the latest edition of e4m's 'Go Dakshin' webinar series.
Other than Reddy, the panel for the online discussion had Abhinav Khare, CEO, AsianetNews Network; Eshwar N, CMO, CASAGRAND; Suresh Balakrishna, Chief Revenue Officer, The Hindu Group; and Varghese Chandy, VP-Marketing, Advertising Sales, Malayala Manorama. The session was chaired by Kishan Kumar Shyamalan, Vice President, Wavemaker India.
Giving an overview of the Telugu speaking market, Reddy said ,"In mega cities like Hyderabad there was an apprehension that newspapers were Corona carriers, so that's something they had to work on. The convincing part took time, but we're back by about 75-80 per cent."
According to Reddy, newspapers are coming back stronger than before. And by applying the learning from the pandemic, publishers will face challenges more efficiently. He said because tier two, three and four towns are not much affected by he pandemic, Sakshi News is focusing more on these towns and their younger readership.
“I think these towns will drive the economy now. Also, there is reverse migration taking place. Things are moving from urban to rural backwards. So we're concentrating more on that,” he added.
Agreeing with Reddy, Balakrishna also said there was not much impact of the pandemic seen in smaller towns. “Being a metro-centric English paper, there was a little more pressure in terms of distribution. Small towns didn't get affected, but we came around fast.”
According to Balakrishna, April was the worst month for business. "From May onwards, things started picking up from both distribution and advertising perspectives. If April was X, May was 2X and June was 80 per cent more than that in terms of circulation. In Tamil Nadu, we're back by 90-95 per cent, Kerala by 80 per cent. In Andhra and Karnataka, the circulation is back by 75 per cent. The return of advertising money still seems at distance, but trend lines can be seen,” he said.
He added that staying relevant during pandemic was a challenge for the print media, but it taught the brands the importance of agility. He shared that The Hindu, just after the lockdown, converted their printed magazines Sports Star and Frontline into full digital magazines and saw an increase in subscription from their niche audience.
He further added that, "digital transformation that was in process got accelerated. We learnt lessons on how to be agile in pricing and content. We were able to build on the trust factor associated with our brand. We published a COVID-book at the end of March for awareness. We had to bring change in the editorial and focus on reader’s day-to-day life in order to gain their trust.”
Talking about Kerala, the home market of Malayala Manorama, Chandy said disasters and Kerala go hand in hand. In his words, "In Kerala, this new norm is being practiced for the last few years. We had the Nipah virus and then multiple floods, so we've been dealing with it for a long time now. The first COVID case was found in Kerala. Disaster and Kerala go hand in hand and we have become pretty good at managing disaster.”
Chandy permeated that with government’s help, newspaper owners have clearly been able to established that newspapers won't spread the virus. "We were even able to circulate in containment areas. Our 99 per cent of distribution remained the same, and it was our circulation revenue that helped us survive the pandemic,” he informed.
Khare also agreed with his predecessors and said, “We are fortunate that all the markets were we operate are extremely well managed. Apart from Kerala, Karnataka is another success story.”
According to Khare, asianetnews.com is media outlet’s main property; and TV, radio and print are its backend. He said, "In Jan, we started a more conservative approach. This quarter too, we have exceeded our targets. Our traffic more than doubled in 100+ days since lockdown. We're the only South Indian player in top 10 in India.”
He added despite awareness, print was bit affected. But the channel’s focus on digital platform paid off. “We offered Kanadda Prabha, our print offering on digital. In terms of revenue, our tradition clients business is zero. In Feb & March, online education, e-commerce, gamings were our new clients,” he said.
Giving an advertiser’s perspective, Eshwar believed that advertising in print pays. He said, "We didn't advertise anything during the lockdown period in April and May. It didn't make business sense to do any ads, as people have to come out and view the property before purchase. Once lockdown opened, we were the first ones to advertise.”
CASAGRAND is one of the biggest advertisers. Eshwar informed, "We have been one of the biggest spenders on ads consistently for years. We've been very heavy with print because the category demands it. During the weekends, the advertising is big because that's the time people come out to review property. We are advertising in all newspapers without language barrier. We didn’t expect it to work, but took a plunge to bring confidence in the industry and it actually worked for us.”
Making an observation about the print industry, Shayamlan said with time, format is changing. He asked the panelists how the pandemic could be converted into a opportunity for reemergence of print.
Answering him Balakrishna said going forward, digital and print formats in organisation have to join forces to survive."We have collapsed the digital and advertising salesforce. Now it’s one salesforce selling digital and print. That was a big change and required a lot of training despite people working from home. Our editorial pivoted much faster from creating print content to digital-first content,” he said.
He added that lockdown changed the whole pricing game. “All of our properties were behind a pay wall even before pandemic hit us. We are the most expensive English newspaper in the country as far as cover price is concerned, and these are the things that are sustaining us during this time. The economics of the business have changed but we envisaged it. It is just being fast tracked,” he said.
With a slightly different perspective, Reddy believed that print will thrive in future because people see it as a credible medium. However, he added, that media players should invest in digital platforms as well.
Chandy and Khare concluded the session on a shared sentiment that medium won’t be of outmost importance and the focus will shift to content offering. "I believe it’s more about the reemergence of the legacy medium rather than the format. It’s about the content, way of storytelling. We are trying to sell across all spaces,” said Chandy.
"In global market, there will be a legacy of gold standard brands. Success will come to legacy brands who manage to rope in cutting-edge digital talent. New age startups will always have credibility issues," added Khare.
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