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Indian Newspaper Industry and its problems

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This week the Indian Readership Survey was out, and two of the key findings were: 1) Whichever newspaper you were reading it on had not only increased its readership base but was also growing 2) There is no hope for print medium.

No, that is not a joke. Newspapers can legitimately claim that their readership is increasing even in the face of falling circulation figures because readership numbers are — I speak the absolute truth here —- basically notional.

For instance, if a family buys a newspaper, the industry norm is to take its (that single paper’s) readership number to be four based on the simple logic that not every family in India is going to be as big as Laloo Prasad Yadav’s.  On the other hand, when a newspaper’s circulation is actually falling, it generally computes its readership figure out of the principle that it is wrong to assume that Laloo Prasad Yadav has just one family.

As you can see, readership numbers are more random than even, say, Sreesanth. But even without the latest readership numbers we in the newspaper business should know we are in a crisis. In fact, the industry has not come out of it since the late 90s, which is exactly the period when two events of longstanding impact happened: One, internet arrived. The other, of course, I arrived in this industry.

No, seriously the point is back in 2000 — a period which our journalistic guidebook implores us to describe as ‘at the turn of the millennium’ —- not many in print journalism believed that it would survive the decade in the face of the competition posed by technological advancements. But we are still very much around in 2013, thereby proving to the world that whatever be the odds, however the challenging the course is, you can overcome them all provided you have that one important quality that lies under all success stories: Luck.

Okay, as ever, I am into oversimplification. The fact is that luck alone could not have saved us. We were actually saved by the likes of BSNL and Airtel. If they were anywhere near being efficient, we would have been history long before. There were times in the previous decade when internet pages took more to time to load than it took a normal girl to attain puberty.  Even today, while we are in the midst of 4G speed and bandwith, there are occasions when my broadband wouldn’t connect because there is, I don’t know, no dial-tone in my phone. So, in general, print medium has nothing much to worry as long as the internet service-providing companies continue to employ total morons in their ranks.

Anyway, it is not as if we in print journalism did not take any effort on our own to overcome the many challenges along the way. Whenever there was general talk of slackening in the readership, top journalistic hands went into brainstorming sessions. Which was the right thing to do. But what was wrong about the whole thing was the brainstorming sessions were with the marketing men —– a typical marketing man’s understanding of editorial functioning could be snugly filled on the back of a 25p stamp with some space to spare.

And during such meetings we journalists were invariably told to ‘reinvent the way the news is presented’, which we solemnly did by —- I will let you into an industry secret here —- changing the news font (Let us face it, when it comes to creativity we journalists are usually far worse than marketing people).

Anyway, when people tell you that journalism has changed beyond recognition over the years, what they mean is the typeface is totally new. Otherwise, news hasn’t changed one bit— it is still as boring as it was in the 50s.

Another thing that we journalists were constantly asked to do was to target the youth, which is to basically write in a manner and on subjects that are attractive and acceptable to the younger generation. So, over the years, we in the newspapers have tended to lay special focus on stuff like sports, films, electronic gadgets.  I must report here that, thanks to our concerted efforts, sports, films and gizmos have got enormously popular among the youth, while the newspapers continue to be unread by them. Also, in this process, we newspapers have ended up antagonising the elder generation who were at least reading us.

So we are now at a crossroads. But what of the future? Where is the print media headed towards? Would we be around in the next five years or so? These are tough questions that don’t have easy answers.  Probably we need to sit and talk with, well, BSNL.