Sam Balsara, chairman and managing director, Madison Communications, newspapers still command 48 per cent market share of all ad revenue. But the media heads gathered at the Indian Newspaper Congress 2008 (INC), organised by the Indian Newspaper Society on May 16 in New Delhi, were clearly in doubt over whether there was still an audience for newspapers.
Speaking at the opening session of the INC, 'Are audiences still glued to newspapers?', Tariq Ansari, managing director, Mid-Day, said that newspapers were not exciting any longer to readers and advertisers. "They are not sexy and exciting. That news can be delivered only on dead trees (newsprint) should be forgotten," he said, and added, "In a couple of years, the Indian Newspaper Congress will be the Indian News Congress. "
Balsara disagreed with Ansari's view and said that even though there were multiple choices for advertisers today as compared to 20 years ago, "as per Madison's study last year, print improved its ad revenue share by 0.4 per cent, whereas television lost by more than 1.4 per cent".
Saying that newspapers were being innovative and keeping abreast with the times, Balsara said, "You guys, as I see from outside, are carrying bolder, shorter and more colourful news. My advice is not to take the business too seriously."
Speaking on behalf of the advertisers, Anisha Motwani, senior vice-president, marketing, Max New York Life Insurance, said that while a few years ago, advertisers in Mumbai had no choice but to go with The Times of India, they have abundant choice today. With more brands coming in, the advertiser can reach his target audience by going with two papers, say, DNA and Mid-Day, at half the cost. She said the literacy wave had just begun and, in rural areas, newspapers are a good medium for advertisers "to look beyond wall paintings".
Motwani suggested that news accessibility on the Internet be made a paid service - there were more than two million sites at this point of time, offering news free.
Tarun Tejpal, chief executive officer and editor in chief, Tehelka, agreed with Motwani and said that he got more than 100 publications at his house in a week, and his two young daughters did not read even one of them. "They read all the news and information on the Internet."
He also raised the point that while in the 1970s, a litre of petrol cost Rs 1.30, a newspaper cost Rs 1.50. While the prices of petrol have gone up beyond Rs 45, the cost of the newspaper has remained static. The consumers were not ready to pay more, he said, adding that newspapers had to depend on advertising to survive. Giving the example of Tehelka, he said that the cost of production of a copy was Rs 16, but it was sold for Rs 10, of which only Rs 5 came back to him.
"No newspaper today will pull a story on a corporate as it runs on corporate advertising.... The core value of the newspaper is not to carry an ad. We need not lament the death of the newspaper. Instead, we need to lament the death of the ethics of a newspaper," he said.
Taking strong objection to Tejpal's views, Balsara said that the newspaper houses were themselves to be blamed for the situation, and not the readers or the advertisers. "For a long time, you all had an unwritten rule to have 50-50 revenue from circulation and advertising. It's you who decided to price the paper at Rs 2 - the advertiser has not told you to change the equation. As for ad pricing, it has to be based on the value the advertiser gets and not on the basis of your printing costs."
Rajdeep Sardesai, editor, CNN-IBN, and Vinay Chhajlani, CEO, NaiDunia, agreed with Tejpal that at times, they had to work in tandem with the marketing team. Chhajlani even revealed that often, he received calls from the marketing team to stop a story or else he would lose an advertiser.
The solution, Sardesai, said was to have a strong leadership. While there was no dearth of content today, nobody's talking about talent, he said. "There is a dearth of good leadership in the industry."
Lynn de Souza, chairman and CEO, Lintas Media Group, agreed with Balsara and said that print still commanded "50 per cent share of our billing. It was 55 per cent a few years ago. But it is still huge."
At the same time, quoting figures from the Indian Readership Survey (IRS), De Souza said that readership had dropped by 20 per cent and "the biggest fall seems to be in the 15-34 years' age group. The group has lost more than two crore readers."
Taking strong exception to the IRS figures quoted by De Souza, Chhajlani said that the survey in Madhya Pradesh was being done in Indore and Jabalpur. "Is the survey being done in Ratlam and the smaller towns? How are these surveys quantifying readership in these towns? Are the marketers looking at these towns?" he asked, and then answered the question himself: "Yes, they are. But no survey - IRS/NRS - is going there."
"Your first entry into literacy is not the e-paper. It is the written word. So, the newspaper is not dead as yet. It's just the beginning," he declared to a round of applause from the audience.
The session was conducted by Govindraj Ethiraj, editor in chief, UTVi. LK Gupta, chief marketing officer, LG Electronics, was also on the panel.