Does the general economic environment have a bearing on readership numbers? Media analysts will say that while there is no direct correlation, the fear of a looming slowdown does make readers choosy. "They start differentiating what is necessary versus what is discretionary and probably make do with less," says Amit Ray, president and chief operating officer, Lintas Media Group.
One thing that stands out in the latest round of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS 2009, R2) is that while total readership (TR) showed some growth, the average issue readership (AIR) across the board has gone downhill. The thing to remember here is that the data pertains to January-June 2009, during which the economy was in the throes of a slowdown.
According to Atrayee Chakraborty, director, planning sciences, Lintas Media Group, the slide in readership had set in even before the slowdown. "The economic crunch may have marginally aggravated this phenomenon, affecting the purchase of multiple dailies at home and on-stands purchase of magazines."
AIR is the number of readers of a newspaper or a magazine for the last published issue, whereas TR is the total reach in a specified period, usually spanning six issues (this story goes with TR figures except where expressly stated.)
No startling changes
Three broad trends emerge from the top line data of IRS 2009, R2. One, publications that ruled the chart in IRS 2009, R1 have stayed the course. While the Top 10 in most categories hold no surprises, there are some very sharp dips in the lower order. Overall, while five of the Top 10 dailies slid in TR, five have shown increases.
Thirdly, magazines across the board have registered a drop in TR in IRS 2009, R2. Most periodicals (weeklies and monthlies) registered a drop in readership. English weeklies dropped by 2 per cent, while Hindi weeklies declined by 4.7 per cent. Hindi magazine Saras Salil remains firmly entrenched at the top with TR of 66.3 lakh.
Also interesting is the fact that while the average literacy rate of South India is at 73 per cent - considerably higher than the Indian national average of 61 per cent (source: Central Intelligence Agency Factbook, basis 2001 census) - readership across South India registered a dip in R2 when compared with R1.
Now the specifics: Among the Top 10 publications, chart topper Dainik Jagran added a total of 2 lakh readers and its TR stands at 5.48 crore. Second ranked Dainik Bhaskar lost close to 6 lakh readers and consequently, its TR stands at 3.3 crore. At No. 3 is Amar Ujala, with TR of 2.9 crore and a decline in total readership of 9 lakh.
Going down the line, rank wise, Hindustan added about 12 lakh readers, taking its TR to 2.8 crore. Marathi daily Lokmat maintained status quo with a total readership of 2.32 crore, adding 26 lakh in TR. Tamil daily Daily Thanthi's TR went down to 2.02 crore, while arch rival Dinakaran lost 2.5 lakh readers from the last round. Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika was down 1.7 lakh readers from the last round. The last two places went to Telugu daily Eenadu (1.4 crore TR) and Rajasthan Patrika (TR of 1.3 crore).
English - and the rest
Among the Top 5 English dailies, numero uno, The Times of India, polled 135 lakh readers, up from 133 lakh in the last round. The second most read daily, Hindustan Times, lost 2.4 lakh readers for a TR of 61 lakh. At No. 3 is Chennai based The Hindu, with 52.3 lakh readers - in the last round, the publication had added 97,000 new readers to stand at 53.7 lakh in TR. Hyderabad based Deccan Chronicle, too, suffered a slight decline in readership to stand at 29.1 lakh (in the last round its TR was at 27.6 lakh). ABP Group's English daily, The Telegraph, which has a strong hold in the eastern region, has a TR of 28 lakh, down from 28.18 lakh readers in the last round.
India Today leads the English magazine stakes with a readership of 56.27 lakh. Reader's Digest, at No. 2, garnered a readership of 36.10 lakh. In IRS 2009, R1, the readership stood at 39.4 lakh. General Knowledge Today is the third most widely read English magazine, although its readership has declined marginally, from 31.92 lakh readers in R1, 2009 to 29.84 lakh in this round.
Fourth ranked Competition Success Review has a readership of 23.48 lakh, losing more than 2 lakh readers since the last round. Filmfare, which is at No.5, has a readership of 20.64 lakh - it lost 1.49 lakh readers since the last round.
Now, focus on the TR figures for Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada publications that are keenly awaited by the media and advertisers alike. Among the Top 5 dailies in each language, Malayala Manorama (Malayalam) and Eenadu (Telugu) gained ground, while Vijay Karnataka (Kannada) and Daily Thanthi (Tamil) slid 55 per cent and 15 per cent respectively between Round 1 and Round 2 of IRS 2009.
The Top 5 magazines in Tamil and Telugu dropped in TR in this round. Among the Top 5 in Kannada, only Roopatara has registered an increase. Among Malayalam magazines, Malayala Manorama is the only one to register an increase. Top contender Vanitha remains largely where it was in Round 1, 2009.
The surprise package seems to be Sakshi, a news daily recently launched by YS Jaganmohan Reddy, son of former Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. Launched in 2008, it was reported for the first time in IRS 2009, R2. It occupies the second slot with a total readership of 125 lakh and AIR of 45.5 lakh.
"Telugu dailies have registered significant growth, both in terms average issue readership and total readership, due largely to the successful launch of Sakshi," says Chakraborty of Lintas Media Group.
The Cost Factor
"One reason why many newspapers and most magazines - whether regional or national - have ceded readership has to do with their efforts to cut costs," says a senior editor with a newspaper based in Delhi, who didn't wish to be identified. Indeed, major advertisers such as the realty, banking and financial sector and IT were among the worst hit during the global crisis, leading to massive cuts in ad spends. Companies in the print space were pushed further into the corner, with mounting operating costs led by all time high newsprint prices.
Both international and domestic newsprint prices peaked at US$960/MT (Rs 43,500/MT) in the last fiscal year. As a result, the raw material cost for print media companies shot up, affecting the profitability.
"Among the measures newspapers have taken to cope with high newsprint prices is cutting the number of pages in the main newspaper, besides rolling back on special supplements and colour pages," the editor adds. "The same is true with magazines that have had to reduce pages and even compromise on the quality of paper and printing. Could any of them have also raised their cover prices? That is bound to have an impact in readership numbers." Little wonder that 13 out of the top 20 magazines have seen a drop in AIR.
Chakraborty of Lintas Media Group adds, "I believe the frequency of reading is dropping on account of a faster and more hectic urban lifestyle and increased connectivity and accessibility to information empowered by digital technology. More true for magazines, which have suffered the most. Also, the magazine genre has got highly fragmented, with more and more niche titles getting launched, making readership estimation very difficult."
The good news for print companies is that newsprint prices have now cooled off and are back to traditional levels. "Currently, newsprint prices are at the lower end," according to a November 2009 report released by ICICIdirect.com Research.
"International prices are at US$490/MT, while domestic prices are at Rs 25,500/MT. We expect prices to move slightly upwards in the current fiscal. We have estimated average international prices for companies to be US$620/MT (including landing and freight charges)," the report adds.
As the green shoots of economic recovery become prominent each day - for proof look at the GDP figures, which expanded 7.9 per cent in the July-September quarter (the fastest in a year and a half), print media owners may not have to wait too long before they start smiling all over again.