Is North East a tough nut to crack for national print dailies?

By Dhaleta Surender Kumar , afaqs!, New Delhi | In Media Publishing
Last updated : March 05, 2009
Despite increasing literacy rates and growing advertising in the North East, national brands are still shying away from the market. afaqs! investigates

The North East market is very unique, especially for the media category. This land of seven sisters - Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya and Manipur - have similar socioeconomic conditions, although each market speaks a different language.

This is why, till date, the North East as a region has no single market leader; every territory has its own market leader.

Several local-language dailies are present in the market. Among these, Assamese dailies hold the largest share, with an average circulation of 4.32 lakh copies, as per the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC), Jan-June 2008. Among other local languages, Manipuri and Khasi also have significant presence in the market.

In the last two years, Assamese dailies have registered a growth of 10 per cent, while Manipuri dailies have registered 20 per cent growth. The average circulation of Manipuri dailies has increased from 48,000 copies to 58,000 copies in two years. The market leaders among Manipuri dailies are Poknapham and The Sangai Express. Pokhnapam, which means 'motherland' in Manipuri, has an average circulation of 31,276 copies; while The Sangai Express has an average circulation of 26,410 copies.

Among Khasi dailies, the lone newspaper to be certified by the ABC is Nongsain Hima, published from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. It has an average circulation of 17,480 copies, as per ABC (Jan-June 2008). However, three more Khasi dailies are present in the market -- Mawphor, Peitngor and Rupang.

It's quite obvious that these language dailies would have a local market leader. What's interesting is that even languages such as English, Bengali and Hindi - which are not restricted to the land of seven sisters, and also have strong national and regional brands - continue to have local brands as market leaders in the North East.

English and Bengali dailies are next in terms of market share. As per the ABC, English dailies have an average circulation of 2.19 lakh copies, while Bengali dailies come next, with 1.67 lakh copies.

Among English dailies, Assam Tribune, with an average circulation of 68,000 copies, has the biggest market share of 31 per cent. The Telegraph is just behind, with 66,000 copies and a 30 per cent market share. In fact, The Telegraph is the only strong English daily brand from outside the region to have successfully penetrated the market.

In the remaining 39 per cent of the market, local brands continue to have a majority share, with prominent brands such as The Sentinel, Nagaland Post and Shillong Times.

The Sentinel has a claimed average circulation of 54,000 copies. Nagaland Post and Shillong Times have an average circulation of 36,000 and 31,500 copies, respectively.

Among the Bengali dailies, local brands comprise the top three players - Dainik Sambad, Dainik Jugasankha, and Daily Desher Katha. Even biggies such as Ananda Bazar Patrika have an average circulation of only 10,000 copies in the region, as per the ABC.

Media observers attribute several reasons to this market situation. Neeraj Sharma, general manager of Manipuri daily, Pokhnapham, shares, "What restricts the national players from entering this market are the logistic and infrastructural challenges. Once these improve, there should be players interested in the market."

In fact, transporting copies from one centre to the other is very expensive because of the hilly terrain.

The other unique feature of this market is the loyalty towards the local brands. Although many national brands are priced at Rs 2, readers still prefer to read the local daily, which could be priced double. "Readers do not want to change their favourite daily," says Sathish Anand, a media consultant who has spent quite a few years in the region.

One reason for the loyalty towards local brands is the lack of interest in national politics. "People out here are more interested in local affairs, rather than national and international politics," says a senior media observer.

RS Suriyanarayanan, media director, Lintas Media Group points out another interesting aspect of the market. "All newspapers in the region have their own distribution system. If a household gets two newspapers, they will be delivered by two different hawkers. In such a scenario, it is very difficult for the national dailies to set up their own distribution centres for a small number of copies," he says.

This is also one of the reasons why even local brands have not moved much beyond their existing territory.

The growth trends in the market could be a further dampener for the national dailies. In the last two years, market growth for English dailies has been almost stagnant at 1 per cent. On the other hand, local-language dailies have had double digit growths.

Industry observers believe that as literacy is on the rise, people are learning to read their own scripts. This is why they have dumped English for the local languages.

The collective literacy in the North East, as per the 1991 census, was 55.7 per cent, which increased to 67.75 per cent in the 2001 census.

Anand points out, "The English reading population - the youngsters - have moved to the metros for different kind of jobs which has affected the English daily readership. Also, the younger lot is getting hooked onto the Internet and English news channels. They get their English dose from these channels."

"This migration of the youth to metros has also had another affect. They've given their parents and grandparents exposure to the outer world which has made this segment inquisitive about the outer world. This quest of theirs could only be met by the regional newspapers."

Besides, the North East market hasn't been a top priority for the national players. This lack of interest could be related to the meagre advertising revenue in the market.

As per industry estimates, the print advertising pie has increased by 50 per cent in the last two years, from Rs 40 crore to Rs 60 crore. However, the size is still very small, compared to the total print advertising pie of Rs 9,000 crore.

As for the advertisers, the government is one of the biggest spenders. While the share of DAVP ads at the national level is 15 per cent, in the North East market, it is 25 per cent.

Besides, in terms of volume, the ratio of national and local advertising is 40:60. However, in terms of revenue, it is exactly the opposite. Suriyanarayanan of Lintas Media group points out that rates for national advertising have not changed for years together; while local advertising rates keep on fluctuating, and at times, local ads are booked on heavy discounts.

The biggest spender, besides the DAVP, is the telecom sector, followed by the automobile sector. In telecom, Aircel, Airtel and Reliance are the major advertisers. Two-wheelers - Hero Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Bajaj, in that order - command the major share in the automobile category. Amongst four-wheelers, Maruti, Hyundai and GM are the biggest advertisers.

Education, according to the experts, is one of the biggest spender, but it is seasonal. "Educational institutes from metros start luring the students from the region from March onwards, right up to the end of admissions in July," says Anand.

Other major advertising categories in the region are consumer durables and finance. LIC and State Bank of India are the biggest advertisers from the latter.

Of late, local brands have also become aggressive and are looking at expansion. Dainik Janakhta, a Bengali daily, was launched from Silchar (Assam) in August 2008. Manipuri daily, Huyanlantao Pao, which closed down seven years ago, after being around for 30 long years, was also re-launched one and half year back. Moreover, the group has launched an English daily with the same title, four months back. Manipuri daily, Pokhnapham, and English daily, The Sentinel too launched their Silchar editions in the last year.

So there seems to be a lot of scope in the market. It's just a matter of time before anyone grabs it.

First Published : March 05, 2009

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