Alokananda Chakraborty

Who let the magazine down?

Some analysts attribute the decline in the readership of magazines, as demonstrated by the NRS 2002, to cheaper cable TV

The recently released National Readership Survey (NRS) maintains that readers prefer newspapers/dailies to magazines. Surprised?

Well, check out the figures.

From 93.8 million in 1999, the readership base in India is down to 86.2 million for magazines in the current year, representing a drop of 8 per cent. In contrast, from 131 million in 1999, the readership base for newspapers/dailies has increased to 156 million in 2002. In reach terms, the study states that the penetration of magazines has fallen by 17 per cent and that of newspapers/dailies has increased by 8 per cent over 1999.

Interestingly, English magazines have registered a marginal decline of 3 per cent in readership comparison to its language counterparts. Hindi and Kannada magazines registered a drop of 15 per cent, and Malayalam and Marathi showed a drop of 12 and 20.

Does this imply that English is the more preferred language? And what explains the drop in readership in the first place?

Ashish Bhasin, president, Initiative Media, proffers an explanation, "Television as a medium has overtaken areas that magazines have traditionally dominated. For instance, news and its analysis is one such area where television is clearly the leader. It has achieved this status by providing topical news on the hour, and every hour. Besides, the cost of access of cable television is comparatively lower than the cover price of a magazine. I can access almost 100-150 channels for roughly Rs 100 to Rs 150 whereas an average magazine (except mainline and business magazines) costs Rs 50 per copy and you can imagine how much I would be spending per month if I were to purchase three or four copies!"

With regard to the readership of English magazines, Bhasin maintains that the number of people reading English has grown significantly and adds that that has happened because such magazines have had to bring down their cover prices to stay competitive. Agrees Sundeep Nagpal, managing director, Stratagem Media, "English audiences are more media-friendly and susceptible to reading than their vernacular counterparts. Don't forget that they are also more literate."

However, Amit Ray, executive vice-president (Media), Mudra Communications, has an interesting point to make. "In my opinion, language magazines are primarily targeted at the family. In other words, they do not have a sharp focus, which is why they could be losing out, simply because television takes care of family-entertainment."

Coming to specific genres, general interest, film/entertainment and sports magazines have shown an erosion of more than 25 per cent. Readership of women's magazines has declined to the extent of 15 per cent whereas readership of news and current affairs magazines has grown during the three-period (1999-2002) with Outlook registering the maximum overall growth (urban and rural) of 16.3 per cent (and a 21.3 per cent growth in urban readership).

Says Nagpal, "News is critical. So why would news and current affairs magazines do badly? These magazines have an advantage over news channels because they can bring in greater depth to their stories. They can do a complete investigative story, which a news channel cannot do."

While a large chunk of media analysts feel that television is the single most important factor for the fall in readership of magazines across genres, some analysts also highlight that reading as a leisure activity has declined among the urban population. Moreover, most magazines have not evolved beyond a point in terms of content, presentation or layout, contributing to the loss of readers. "Most magazines are quite staid," claims Ray. "Let's face it. The loss incurred by not reading magazines is perceived to be much lesser than gains from watching television. In other words, the psychological dependence and interest in the medium has reduced in comparison to television."

So will those glossy, one-hundred-odd page tomes disappear from the market? Not really, say analysts. The future lies in specialised magazines. The reason? Television cannot cater so extensively to niche segments. As Nagpal puts it, "Television is more entertainment-driven than information-driven and specific interests such as computers and interiors require information to sustain them." He claims that it is difficult to put regular features on the tube because information absorption is low through the medium. "Print is the only medium that allows the reader to absorb the information," he concludes.

Mudra's Ray is optimistic about the potential of niche magazines. "The possibility of magazines being more specialised is greater. General interest magazines will fade. Specific-interest magazines may not have great readership but will have their own clientele and do good business. A good example being Cosmopolitan. With FDI in print now being approved by the Government, Indian magazines may well head that way." © 2002 agencyfaqs!