Saturday, January 07, 2017

Is print media dying?

When a newspaper like The Hindustan Times shuts down its editions, 4 of them simultaneously, letting go of nearly 1000 people (as reported in the media) it does so because it is seriously considering its future options. At the same time there is news of large regional media houses like the Kolkata based ABP cutting down staff by 40%, creating a frenzy of speculations, including many professional orbituary writers inking their pen while anticipating the next business demise to be that of print media. At the same time, there are reports to the exact opposite like the recent World Press Trends Survey 2016 which have globally shown 4.9% growth over last year largely on account of the growth of print in India. Sometimes, these two situations seem quite contradictory, throwing all print media related businesses into a tizzy.

 I have been in businesses that are considerably dependent on print media and, if print media were to shut down tomorrow, three of our group's five businesses would suffer substantial damage. So this discussion is pertinent and important to our group and I do spend much of my time building scenarios and possible strategies to overcome such outcomes. One other grassroot input for me is also from the discussions I regularly have with our newspaper vendors to understand how their curbside business is doing, since it gives an insight into the direct buying behaviour of people. I have been doing this now for over 2 years, which while may be statistically unacceptable as a data set, but does provide a from-the-stands perspective.

Let me begin by saying what the newspaper vendors tell me - and for those who are like me, in businesses that depend on print media substantially, brace yourselves. In Mumbai and Delhi, the curbside newspaper vendor business is down to about 40-60% of what it was 15 to 18 months ago. Another current fact - the Demonetization drive has put a axe on their already bruised backs and on top of their reduced newspaper sale, the sale of magazines which cost more than Rs. 100 is down to 20% the same period a year ago. Most want to get out of this business, but unfortunately, they do not know much other than this trade, and are also unable to risk any other business for fear of losing even more. Reading this far, most would have got the feeling that it sounds like the end of print media.

However, conclusions cannot be that simplistic or linear. All in all, the print story will be discussed, with consolidations, experimentation and evolution for the next decade. In my opinion there will be a two directional impact on the print media in India over the next 5 years. With the time spent on print news getting lesser and lesser, in metros they are likely to go through pressure of reducing readership, where some readers will move to digital subscriptions of the same papers, which I estimate to be about 15 to 20%. Many of the rest, will depend on free news that is widely available through the internet.

On the other hand, in the Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, the rising literacy will help grow local news publications, a trend which can be expected to continue for the next 5 years at the same pace, and with reducing pace over the 2 years thereafter. In the same time, the digital access and digital literacy gap and language gap is likely to get reduced helping many from Tier 2/3 to leapfrog to news-over-the-phone. However, please keep in mind that these are merely reducing trends and not a prediction of the demise of print. After all, even now more than 50% of people in US consume news from only one source - Print and the reduction in readership has only started two years ago. (Pew Report - http://www.journalism.org/2016/06/15/newspapers-fact-sheet/)

 But there will be shooting stars in print media too? Some of them will continue to grow rapidly over the next 5 years. These are likely to be niche publications, either for a language, region, sector or community. Five years from now will probably be one of free newspapers, like the Metro, which will survive only on advertisements. But be it subscribed, nice, or free, even in the very end of the print media, even if it were going through its last painful throes, you'll find me, even if I were the only one , reading a printed newspaper while sipping my morning tea.