Hard Facts and Soft Copies

Does Newsweek’s closure as a print magazine portend bleak times for other print news magazines as well?

“We are announcing this morning an important development at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. Newsweek will transition to an all-digital format in early 2013. As part of this transition, the last print edition in the United States will be our Dec. 31 issue.”

–       Daily Beast, October 18, 2012

 Last week, Newsweek announced that it was closing down its print-edition (A Turn of the Page for Newsweek, The Daily Beast, October 18, 2012). The pulling of the plug for this iconic newsmagazine highlights the problems other newsmagazines face in the internet age. In India, it is not that our newsmagazines haven’t seen the writing on the wall. They have, and have resorted to unique Indian ways in trying to combat the very problem that brought the downfall of the Newsweek hardcopy. But for how long?

Every Sunday afternoon I go out and buy Outlook, India Today, Tehelka and Open. By evening I am done with them. All that effort, all those late nights by an army of columnists, satirists, copy editors, cartoonists, graphic designers, proof-readers, all that sparkling work, is consigned to the raddi stack that earns me Rs Four a kilo.

The newsmagazines are colourful, eye-catching, sometimes invigourating, and yet, we flip through them, mostly in a hurry, and keep them aside. We keep aside newspapers, too, but a newspaper is a morning habit, and besides, it’s always been inexpensive. True, the day goes haywire if the newspaper isn’t delivered in the morning, although we all know there’ll be hardly anything revelatory in it. As the Firstpost advert says, the news in the newspaper is a day old. But over time, our eyes have gotten used to the fonts, the supplements, the reporting, the sentiments, the op-eds, and we feel incomplete without having had the satisfaction of holding the broadsheet in our hands. A day without the newspaper is like brushing your teeth without the toothpaste.

Newsmagazines, they are different. We buy them because of a habit that we gained 30 years ago, when I remember, there sometimes used to be a queue at the magazinewala for a copy of India Today. It used to be a fortnightly then, and great care was taken to put together its many sections. Moreover, the editorial team were young and fresh, and knew that they were delivering to India what we hadn’t experienced before: a crisp newsmagazine like Time and Newsweek. Ever since, buying the newsmagazine turned into a habit.

But in this day and age, one has to ask if that habit has outlived its purpose. Something’s the matter when one is able to ‘finish’ four newsmagazines within the hour, when one is merely glancing through them, like one glances through a National Geographic, admiring its photographs but seldom examining the text.

So it’s only inevitable that soon I’ll abandon this habit of mine. I have wondered why that would be, and I think it is to do with a number of things, foremost being the advertising in the newsmagazines. Most newsmagazines nowadays carry more advert pages than content pages. This can’t be right. More worrying is when the content is driven by the advertising, an example of which is the yearly sex survey, where a Durex advert jostles for space with a bar chart explaining male and female fetishes.

The second reason is more fundamental and unless the newsmagazines pay heed their days are numbered. It is simply this: that I might flip through a newsmagazine quickly, but then over the coming week, I access its contents leisurely on the internet. Any article that catches my eye – and those contrarian-rebels at Open make sure their weekly has an oversupply of such articles – I make note of it and get back to it but again only on the internet. The arrival of smart phones has helped enormously. Sooner or later, the paying public will realise there’s no point buying the newsmagazine – the hard copy that is – most of which would be advertisements anyway – one would much rather read the soft copy, i.e. the web version. Not only can you read the article that caught your eye, you can read all previous articles by the same columnist. Again and again.

The third reason, and it is an extension of the second, is that the hard copies of these newsmagazines lack the vital element of interactivity. The eye is forever drawn towards the comments section that appears under every article of a soft copy. Besides, the web offers the newsmagazine to not only gauge some characteristics of its readership – from the type and quality of comments – but also allows readers to vent their anger, or be complimentary towards a piece. What’s more, the reader can do all this for free, without having to pay Rs 20 or Rs 30 for it.

Moreover, interactivity is good for the columnist as well. It means that a sense of kinship builds up between the provider and the consumer – like the one that exists between the kirana shop owner and you; a sense of expectation also sometimes, of what new expletive will be devised. (I would love to invite for tea the gentleman who called me a pygmy-mind – how did he guess what the missus had suspected all along?!)

All this is not possible with a hard copy. The editors simply don’t know how well their articles and pieces are being received. There is an apt analogy here with what happens in the scientific world. Not until a scientist goes and presents his published work in a conference does he get to know where he and his work stand in the field. There is an impact factor for the journals in which the scientist publishes, and a citation index for all his publications. I am sure advertisers have a similar metric system for deciding where best to place their advertisements – India Today or Outlook or Open. But these are advertisers, not readers, mind you, and in continuing to print hard copies I fear the newsmagazines are simply doing a service to the advertisers and not their readers. The phone-ins on TV news channels started some years back to address this problem: of how best to get close to the viewer. But TV is not a suitable medium for getting to know the views of an audience. It never will be, unless there’s a news channel that’s exclusive to the web.

Yes, there will always be those who’d want to read only the hard copy of the newsmagazine, like there are those to still buy books from bookshops. But then they are the minority; the majority order books from Flipkart or Amazon. One cannot reverse this trend as it is based on hard logic. As the Prime Minister said, money does not grow on trees.

Anand Vardhan wrote a few months ago an informative article on the state of magazine readership. I concur with him that niche magazines have a growth potential in today’s world, just like people will always read literary works, will always have peculiar hobbies or play golf. My gut instinct, however, tells me that sooner rather than later, at least as far as the newsmagazines are concerned, people are going to stop paying money just to be able to flip through pages and pages of “features” and “avenues” concerning new and exciting MBA and Dental-Medical Institutes and luxury watches and writing instruments. Even readers who have developed a bond with established magazine columnists would take to the web to read them.

Newsmagazines have to think hard about their present revenue model. They can, like Firstpost or NewsLaundry, leave the hard copy concept altogether and be exclusively on the web, but then, what would their revenue model be? Keep in mind that those who read on the web hate to pay for it. A friend who used to read The Times (of London) on the web simply switched to Guardian when Times started charging money for access. The revenue model can either be pay-for-access, or advertising on the web. India Today and Outlook do that already for their soft-copies, but they overdo it. The ads are so many – one doesn’t have the luxury of placing them and spacing them like one can in the hard copy version – that, inevitably, they manage to clutter the window so much that you don’t know what to click. Things start to pop up left and right, and it is becoming ever more difficult to locate that damn “close cross” – you have to wait patiently till the ad has decided in its kindness to dissolve.

Newsmagazines have had a great role to play in shaping and stimulating the minds of its readers, sometimes more than the newspapers – one doesn’t take to bed a newspaper like one does an Outlook or an India Today. But it is an endangered species.

The only way out, as I see it, is for a Newsmagazine is to become a news and analysis hub, where all types of content is available: text, video, audio – something that is possible only on the internet. Firstpost identified this lacunae and chose to go the soft copy way. NewsLaundry has done the same, but it is different in that it has a unique mix of text and audio-visual (AV) – sometimes even text-audio-visual! – and it is my reckoning that NewsLaundry aficionados tend to prefer the audiovisual offerings, even though it takes more time to watch an NL interview than to read an NL piece. I would, too. Let’s face it: AV is arresting – just like it is more enjoyable to watch a great film than to read a good book. The addition of AV to a webzine is decisive – this is exactly what the hard copies (and soft copy webzines, too) were missing. Would the webzines transform slowly into webTVs? I don’t know, and one would have to watch this space I guess.

What I do know is that, unless my raddiwala jacks up the price of newsmagazines from Rs 4 to Rs 10 per kilo, it won’t be very long before I make the switch from hard to soft copy.


Image Source: [http://www.flickr.com/photos/amitburst/4280595548/]

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  • Ashok Jahnavi Prasad

    As usual,another brilliant analysis Anand! Had commented on this in my very first article here in the Newslaundry. There was a time I was a newsmagazine addict as well but ruefully the quality of analysis has gone down of late specially when it comes from the ‘hardened journalists’ who have lost all credibility.Must admit I read the Tehelka magazine for the first time last week and that too because it was available in my hotel room in Bombay and am yet to peruse Open. The only quality article in that issue of Tehelka was the one by BG Verghese. The others like India Today and Outlook,one remarkable development is how sub-standard the analysis is when it comes from their usual staff-it is the guest experts that are keeping the journals afloat with their excellent and incisive analysis. In my days Nikhil Chakravarty edited Mainstream and his analysis was superlatively brilliant but he found it difficult to compete with the polemics of Khushwant Singh and others-maybe he did not want to as his journal hardly had any ads! That was one newsmagazine I always relied upon even if I disagreed with his communist leanings. But must admit I shall be sad to see the demise of the iconic newsmagazine which gave my generation so much of joy during the Watergate exposure.

  • Ankur P

    Quite a brilliant analysis. It is a sad state of affairs. Being a journalism student who is yet to graduate, it saddens me to see the slow, painful death of print. Because the web can never match the charm of the printed word, the byline encrypted by ink – it stays forever, is more portable and eventually becomes a piece of history. The web feels eerily superficial. There is no exclusivity about writing online. It is cluttered. Like you mention queuing up to buy the latest India Today, my mother tells me there would be eager anticipation for a literary Hindi magazine called – Dharmyug. That kind of rush, the web cannot replace. And that is everything a journalist secretly desires.