It is not for the first time that the issue of print facing tough times has been raised at a platform like FICCI Frames. However, the same was widely discussed by experts and an eager audience raised its concerns on the topic as well.
A panel comprising of T N Ninan, chairman, Business Standard; Rajiv Varma, chief executive officer, HT Media; and Lynn De Souza, chairperson and chief executive officer, Lintas Media Group and chairperson, Readership Studies Council discussed the growth, future and challenges to expansion for the print medium in the coming decade of digitalisation and proliferation of the digital media.
Dasgupta threw open the discussion by asking "Is the print industry dying?" He also referred to the very recent development of the Encyclopedia Britannica ending its print edition and continuing with digital versions available online.
Varma revealed how, when he joined HT Media seven years ago, 100 per cent of the company's revenue came from print. The same has now gone down to 80 per cent, while the rest is accounted for by the group's other diversified interests such as radio and online.
At the same time, Varma brought to attention how the situation is just the opposite in the East, where in countries such as Japan and Korea, newspapers are actually thriving. While the answer to this paradox is not clear yet, the safest strategy for the industry is to 'plan for the worst and hope for the best', remarked Varma. He insisted that the media companies have to diversify to make good any losses.
While Varma seemed optimistic, Ninan took the other stance. He pointed out several trends in the Indian print market in his discourse.
Ninan observed that the Indian print industry is showing contradictory trends as both proliferation and consolidation seem to be happening at the same time, which he found unusual.
He said that while many believed that the advent of television news could replace print, a close observation of the bottomlines would reveal that the former is certainly in trouble. The real threat for print, according to Ninan, comes from entertainment television, where most of the advertising money is headed.
Ninan said that print is showing signs of stress, as revealed by increasing circulation without proportionate increase in readership. Coupled with low transparency in metrics, this implies real bad news, he added.
"Press does not have the cache as it used to. There is a problem of credibility and it will be foolhardy for us to ignore it," said Ninan.
De Souza pointed out that advertising continues to be the primary source of income for print in India. As a media buyer, she revealed how ad spends of companies have gone up from Rs 15,000 crore to Rs 30,000 crore in the last five years, while the allocation to print has been stable at 41 per cent. However, she said that there is buoyancy in the market and despite competition from other media, print has managed to hold its own in India.
De Souza said that when it comes to advertising, television is still dominated by FMCG brands, while print enjoys varied sectors such as education, social, automobile and real estate, among others. All of these are also 'e-commercible' ones, she cautioned.
Citing the example of QR codes in print ads, she pointed out that newspapers are aware of the digitisation of readership and are welcoming the same.
"We, on the buying side, see the print owners doing things to arrest losses," she said. De Souza noted how all major print companies have diversified into other interests, particularly radio, to leverage localisation and reach the consumer in deeper ways.
Dasgupta then discussed with the panel the possibility of a viable and adequate revenue model for the industry.
Varma went back in history to note how newspapers were built on a model which involved readers being engaged with stories and, in the process, to come across advertising. He said that the same model has continued for decades. On the digital medium, though, this model was disrupted and advertisers could target consumers directly without depending on stories.
At the same time, he added that the online revolution is still young and upcoming models could allow for integrated newsrooms to exist.
Ninan noted that all international editions have moved to the subscription model and it is about time that Indian publications followed suit.
Towards the end, the panel discussed if magazines are on their way to a 'terminal decline'. While the members agreed that internationally, except for The Economist, most magazines are going through rather trying times, Dasgupta asked if there is still space for magazines in India - both niche and general.
De Souza said that while magazines are showing a regular drop in growth every quarter, at the same time, almost every other day, a new magazine is being launched.
"We do not have the right metric for magazines. They are not making money but from the advertising point of view, we are supporting them," she said.
Ninan agreed and added that the hope remains only for niche magazines and ones with rich content.
Closing the discussion, Dasgupta hinted that while there are optimists and sceptics, it can be agreed that the print industry cannot exist as it has over the years and there is a definite need to innovate.