Last updated : May 25, 2010
I feel like an old man when I say this - but since the time I joined the advertising industry 22 years ago, the obituary of print as a medium in India has been written every four-five years. Since print was historically the most powerful medium, every time there was a new kid on the block, the bells supposedly tolled for the print medium.
In the primary stages of the evolution of television in the country, the Asian Games brought in colour TV sets on a large scale during the early 80's. It was said that TV would be the medium of the future and the hold of print would diminish. This argument was strengthened with the satellite channel explosion in the early 90's and in retrospect, proved to be partly true. TV did, as predicted, become the medium for the future - but not at the cost of print. The entire pie grew and newspapers and some magazines continued to grow in circulation, size, readership and indeed, clout.
The dotcom days after the mid 90's heralded another medium of the future - the web world - and again, print was expected to breathe its last. Unfortunately, the dotcom bust followed the boom and suddenly, everybody was writing the obituary of the Internet!
However, print continued to grow silently, jolted out of its slumber and started to reinvent itself. Life moved on. After 2005, the digital world became a reality and most print bigwigs, too, tried to enter the digital world to cope with the changing times.
Yet again, the naysayers have said that print is dying as a medium and, in my view, they will be proven wrong again. There is no doubt that print as a medium faces its toughest challenge ever but there should also be no doubt that once again, it will emerge like the phoenix and not perish like the dinosaurs it is sometimes compared with. There are good reasons for that, too.
The foremost reason why print will do well in India for at least the next decade or so actually lies in our economy. It is now quite apparent that India is on a high growth trajectory and is likely to continue on this path for the next 15-20 years. This will not only increase the purchasing power substantially, which is obvious, but will also have a huge positive multiplier for print, more than what anybody can imagine.
The positive multiplier will came from a surge in literacy levels. The government focus on education and literacy programmes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and the general social dividend of economic growth will add 500-600 million people to the reading population over the next decade.
If only a fraction of them read newspapers and magazines, one can well imagine how much potential this medium has! In fact, it may herald a resurgence not seen in the last 20 years and print magnates will do well to strengthen their positions and ride the crest of the impending boom, have confidence in their medium and ignore the doomsday merchants.
The other reason why print will do well in the future is that it has started to reinvent itself. There was a time when anything remotely innovative was considered an assault on editorial independence. I remember the effort required when we first suggested to the most innovative of the newspapers, The Times of India, to give us the front page and the jacket of the TOI for the launch of Indya.com.
I remember having to call all the powers that be at TOI and finally, to its credit, TOI took the bold step, heralding a spate of innovations in the medium. The recent roadblock for Volkswagen is the latest example.
Most publications have revamped their look, feel and content and are far more receptive to the needs of the market. Some may argue that they are, in fact, too receptive. However, it does show that it is a medium reinventing itself. Anything that keeps itself contemporary, reinvents and adapts to changing times not only survives but thrives.
However, just because the medium will do well, it does not mean that every player in it will do well. Content, in print, is an ever bigger king than in most other media. Since the medium faces the disadvantage of timeliness compared to the 'Breaking News' format of the electronic media, content has to be of a unique and high standard to interest the reader.
It also doesn't mean that the print landscape won't change. On the one hand, the democratisation and the availability of information make the world a village and news global. However, there is an equally big need for local, micro-market news. The reader in Ujjain is very interested in what Obama has to say but is even more interested in his local issues, civic problems and local news. This will create more regional and niche publications - and local languages will play a bigger role.
All in all, print appears to be a resurgent medium, which has a glorious decade ahead of it. It will see a changing landscape and a shakeout of less adaptive players but as a medium, it will thrive.
It will be a phoenix, not a dinosaur.
(The author is chairperson, India and chief executive officer, Southeast Asia, Aegis Media; and director, Posterscope APAC)First Published : May 25, 2010