Magazine journalism: Existential threat or re-imagined future?

The speed of news generation and news consumption that digital media facilitates has made print a repository of second-hand information, with many opining that print journalism, especially magazine journalism, is becoming increasingly tough to practice

e4m by Ruhail Amin
Published: Aug 28, 2017 8:02 AM  | 7 min read

Traditional journalism has never been beset with an existential threat that it faces now. Thanks to the growing popularity of online media, news is increasingly getting generated by the minute and consumed within a similar span. In such a situation traditional media outlets, especially print publications, have come under great stress.


The speed of news generation and news consumption that digital media facilitates makes newspapers and magazines at best a repository of second-hand information. Many feel that print journalism, especially magazine journalism, is becoming increasingly tough to practice and some have even started writing obituary pieces about this format of journalism.


Such is the gravity of this existential threat to magazine journalism that recently Union Minister for Finance, Defence Corporate Affairs went on record to describe it in these words, “Magazine journalism in India is today probably the most difficult one. Thanks to technology, the definition of news has itself changed. News these days is whatever the camera is ready to capture or alternatively what digital media is able to get attracted to. Print journalism both in terms of technology and timing faces that radical challenge. Even for daily newspapers, one really cannot read in the newspapers what one has seen several times over on TV the previous evening or read it on the smartphones.”


What do the numbers say?


According to Pitch Madison Report 2017, print grew at 7% in 2016, with dailies registering a growth of 8% while magazines saw negative growth. Demonetization resulted in leading print advertisers holding back on spends in the last quarter. In 2017, the print advertising market is expected to grow by 9.5% to come close to Rs 20,000 crore, with dailies and regional publications leading the growth.


The report further states that in terms of category contribution, FMCG is the largest contributor to the print pie, with a contribution of 15%. Automobiles are the second largest contributor at 14%, followed by Education (10%). Contribution of E-commerce comes way down with just 3%. The E-commerce category has dropped significantly by 15% to come down to Rs 621 crore in 2016. In terms of Volume, Hindi publications continue to be ahead of English publications contributing 35% of the total volume while the latter contribute only 26%. But in terms of growth of volume, English publications have grown by 8% while Hindi publications grew by only 3%. Kannada, Bengali and Punjabi publications show substantial increase in volume, while Gujarati and Tamil publications show a decline of 6%.


Re-imagining magazine journalism


Despite the negative growth registered by magazines, industry players are hopeful that the format will get redefined and re-imagined and witness another golden era in the time to come. According to Raj Chengappa, Group Editorial Director (Publishing), India Today Group and President, Editors Guild of India, “The biggest challenge is how the technology has made news available anywhere and anytime. The most popular platform is emerging to be the smartphone. However, it has its own limitations. If you look at most of the news items on the net, it follows the cookie cutter approach as one item looks like the other. There is no discrimination between news items. While print is all about display, size of the headlines, the picture that we use and even the graphics. Also, there is too much of news and the scope of having credible news has diminished and people are getting confused by all this. What people are looking for is relevant and credible news.”


Stating that magazine journalism is all about curated content and distilled information, Chengappa further adds, “What magazines do is to take complex information, distill it and bring clarity. So, the clarity which print magazines can bring out has better writing, better display, better visuals and it is an art by itself.  While there is huge explosion of news, most people are seeking clarity about what they read and want curated news. So what you are seeing now is the revival in the interest of magazines as they are great storytellers. The role of magazines now is growing again. People are coming back to understanding good writing. In fact, the India Today magazine has been re-imagined with that approach.”


Double whammy of demonetization & GST


The bigger challenge which the entire media industry, especially the print industry, is facing for the last 8–10 months is mostly linked to the external economic environment. The double whammy of demonetization and GST has adversely affected ad spends and print is more affected than TV or digital.


Speaking about the challenges for magazine publishers, Anant Nath, Editor, Caravan and Executive Director, Delhi Press stated, “Magazines that are highly dependent on consumer product advertising have been more adversely hit. For magazines, the other big challenge is that of distribution. In my opinion, to say people are reading online and therefore print is declining is only part of the problem; it is like looking at the issue from a purely myopic perspective.” 


Nath believes that readers are willing to buy print publications if they are available at a convenience to them. “If a print product is readily available at their doorstep or at a point of purchase which is accessible and convenient, then readers are more than willing to buy. The problem with magazines is that we as an industry have not been able to somehow ensure as effective distribution as we should have. Therefore, we are still counting on the reader to make some efforts to buy a magazine while there needs to be active involvement from the publishers’ end.”


The way forward


While it may be challenging for magazine publishers to woo readers in this digitally connected world, the good news is that the reader is still passionately consuming print content in the form of magazines. Some media veterans argue that magazine journalism has the advantage of connecting deeply with the consumers which TV and digital lack. However, they also suggest that in order to keep the readership intact, the distribution approach needs to be reworked to make print publications, especially magazines, conveniently available for readers.


“I think magazine journalism has the advantage of engaging the reader in an in-depth way. This is not the case with TV and digital and this in itself is a big plus that the magazine publishers can leverage. However, what is critical is how you ultimately present those stories to the readers and how you adjust to the demands of new marketing,” stated Alok Mehta, veteran journalist and former Editor-in-Chief, Outlook Hindi . 


According to Maneck Davar, Chairman and Managing Director, Spenta Multimedia, India's largest custom magazine publisher, consumer magazines are going through a lot of stress. Davar believes that the overall dip in advertising revenues and readership numbers is causing such a situation. “There are a number of reasons for this situation and mainly because the younger generation is not reading magazines as they prefer digital content.  Also, globally most magazines have online subscription while in India it’s very difficult to follow that model. On the positive side, the loyalty that print publications enjoy is way better than digital media and that can become its biggest advantage.”


There is no denying that the ease of access has made digital news more popular. It is convenient to consumer news on mobile or laptop.  But will the long format and analytical journalism of magazines be taken over by this populist platform? 


While explaining the innate difference between digital and print, Nath says that magazine journalism has its distinct flavour which cannot be replaced by any other platform. He also believes that the various formats of media will eventually co-exist without any existential threat. “In most cases, online reading is more geared towards news and current affairs and breaking news. The articles that we publish in our magazines are far more in-depth and for engaged reading. For people who want to read such articles, mobile is not the ideal format. Also, online as a medium has too many distractions and it does not offer a much focused reading experience. Moreover, India with its sheer population numbers offers good scope for growth and sustainability of print. So, print will always have an important space. It will co-exist with the online space and all the media will finally find equilibrium,” stated Nath.

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