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Indian Newspaper Congress 2009: Long live the news

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Indian Newspaper Congress 2009: Long live the news

The second edition of the Indian Newspaper Congress, held in Delhi on July 10, opened on an energetic note with representation from most of the print industry heavyweights. This joint initiative of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS) and the exchange4media Group provided a platform for the industry to convene and revisit various facets of the Indian newspaper industry with the objective of growing this industry further.

INS President Hormusji Cama (Chairman, Bombay Samachar) kicked off the discussions of the day with an address on the need to reinvent. Cama touched on some of the pressing problems of the industry beginning with industry research that has been following an archaic design, and has in the process left many with the impression that research has dampened industry’s growth instead of bolstering it.

He stressed that the newspaper industry must get together, and delve seriously on the current cover pricing situation, in order to survive the challenges ahead. Following this welcome address, Anurag Batra, Editor-in-Chief and Chairman of the exchange4media Group took the dais, and once again emphasised on the need to focus on more alternative streams of revenues building instead of the current dependence on advertising revenues.

And that had set the stage for the Chief Guest and the Keynote Speaker of the day – Dr Shashi Tharoor, Minister of State for External Affairs, Government of India. Dr Tharoor reminisced of his growing days when a chaai and a newspaper (seven newspapers in his case) was a daily morning tradition. Whether Dr Tharoor knew it at the time or not, but this had laid down the tone of conversations of the day.

Another word that made a bit of a repeat appearance in the course of the day, and constantly took the attention of the speakers and the delegates back to the newspaper cover pricing issue, was ‘raddi’. On the one hand, the likes of B V Rao stated that until newspapers didn’t price themselves higher than what their ‘raddi’ value would be, the respect and hence the investment in content would never come to the scale that was required at this point by the industry. On the other hand, some news media owners took offence to the allegation that the industry was not looking at these critical issues sensibly, especially given the current economic times.

A lot more was discussed in the course of the day. The Indian newspaper industry has braved all odds, and survived. It is in fact one of the very rare print industries that is still seeing growth. However, all experts were clear that the time to reinvent is already here if the pace of that growth has to be maintained. The question was is it time to reinvent the newspaper business, or news itself. One question that was perhaps not answered in the course of the day is who takes the onus of driving this reinvention? Will it show results if there is ambiguity on whose responsibility it finally is?

Bharat versus India

All the industry heavyweights that participated in the course of the day acknowledged the fact that the conversation of distinguishing Bharat from India was common place now. Any news media house that was contemplating growth looked at the burgeoning regional markets in India to lead this growth. While Dr Tharoor spoke on this in his address, in the course of the day, the likes of BCCL’s Bharat Kumar Raut; Nai Dunia’s Alok Mehta; ZenithOptimedia’s Satyajit Sen; Amar Ujala’s Sunil Mutreja and BCCL’s Ranjeet Kate reiterated this point.

There were two clear reasons cited in the favour of this observation. One was the fact that the existing consumers were getting more complex every day. They were consuming different facets of media in different languages and an affinity for news in the language that one was comfortable with, was seen. To leave a mark and to bring back the reader, the print news media needs to make the emotional and the cerebral attack. And according to the media owners, the best suited to execute that job was the regional media.

The second point is the neo audience. Year on year India is growing its literacy rate, and this implied an increase in the audience that could consume print media. This neo audience is expected to eventually be the new consumers that would bring growth to various companies including media owners and advertisers. This potent audience is another reason that is working in the favour of regional media.

The one concern, however, that was raised on the subject was whether media owners and media agencies understand regional pockets of India and the potential they had. Experts such as Allied Media’s Shripad Kulkarni admitted that the attention of the industry in this area was still limited. The experts, however, recognised that the future of the industry was headed in the regional direction.

Is the digital future embraced?

On the subject of the neo audience, another subject that hogged significant attention of all discussions was whether the print news media was gearing to embrace and grow in the digital future. The house was very clearly divided on that. Many experts from publications such as Jagran Group and Bhaskar Group were clear that digital media would face the problems of allowing communication in languages that the mass populace of India was familiar with and until that was the case, print would dominate the audience and hence the media share.

Starcom MediaVest Group’s Ravi Kiran perhaps put it the most succinctly when he said that there were digital natives (born in or after 1985) and digital immigrants. The digital natives were growing in numbers, were the sought after audience of today, and the mass audience of tomorrow. The course of the discussion made it apparent that newspapers were as yet not investing to attracting this audience. One reason was that there were many other kinds of audiences such as the female TG that was still waiting to be tapped, and second the digital natives or the youth audience is perhaps the single most difficult TG to attract and retain today.

Microsoft’s Ranjivjit Singh’s observation should have worried at least a few when he said that for this digital native and for the urban India per se, digital was no longer niche or new, it was a mass media, and it was well set and capable to eat into print medium.

New is news in all forms

The war of the mediums settled down a bit when some of the experts stated that news is news, and as long as it was accessed, the form that it was accessed in, did not matter. Mid-Day Multimedia’s Tariq Ansari said that we had to stop seeing newspapers as deadwood, and accept the fact that it could be seen in any form. The view was the same from Khaleej Times Didier Brun as well. Interestingly, this point of discussion was raised in the first year of the INC as well. Some of the thought leaders are clear and strong believe in the future where newspaper while still called paper may be in other forms than what it is traditionally seen as.

The direction here too points again to a digital future, but that is one future that some publications would rather wait and see the developments of.

And until the next INS biggie --- World Newspaper Congress in Dec

India is important on the global map, and that was discussed at the INC as well. The next big event of the INS reinforces this fact as well. Sakaal Group’s Pratap Pawar, who was representing WAN (World Association of Newspapers), announced the upcoming World Newspaper Congress in Hyderabad in December 2009. The INS is hosting the event this year, given its relations with WAN. Pawar urged the speakers and delegates to wholeheartedly support the initiative, and generously contribute towards making it a success. This is the first time that the World Newspaper Congress would be held in India, and from the publishing industry point of view, this is no mean feat. An excited Hormusji Cama informed that President of India, Pratibha Patil, would be inaugurating the World Newspapers Congress in India.

At the end of the day, and after the culmination of seven rounds of discussions, the Indian Newspaper Congress 2009 did prove to serve its purpose of getting the industry heavyweights together. The audience saw presence from the likes of India Today Group’s Aroon Purie and Ashish Bagga; INS and Delhi Press’ Paresh Nath and Counselage’s Suhel Seth, among others. The INC 2009 had the attention of the industry.

The event partner was Encompass.


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