- NL Sena
The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train.
(Disclaimer: I usually write data driven pieces, but this is more of a personal piece on how I see things shaping up in the Indian media in the months to come. I feel, tougher times are ahead and the light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train).
The Indian media is going through a huge turmoil right now. Several high profile editors have quit their jobs. The official reason offered for these exits has always been the need of the individual to do other things in life than just news and analysis. Of course, the grapevine has suggested something else. But given that I have no insider information on this, let’s leave it at that.
Editors quitting always makes for big news. But what hasn’t made it to the news as much is that over the last few months several publications and TV channels have shut down and journalists have lost jobs by the dozen. Over and above this, many publications which continue to be in operation have fired many journalists.
So, what do we make of all this?
Let me take a slight detour before I come around to eventually answering this question.
I had a short career in full-time journalism of around six and a half years. Of the 78 months, I really enjoyed the first 60.
I quit full-time journalism in March 2012. I wanted to finish writing this long book that I had been working on. I hadn’t thought much beyond that. There was enough money in the bank and hence, the idea was to finish writing the big book and then figure out the next move in life.
But life, as they say, had other plans for me.
Within a week of quitting, I started getting offers to freelance for publications. The money initially wasn’t much, but it wasn’t bad either and I had the time to write a few pieces a week.
Within a couple of years, I was writing all over the place. It didn’t take me much time to realise that as internet bandwidth prices fell and reading habits changed, I was riding the rise of the digital publications in India. While Rediff.com had been around for a while, there were not many other digital-only publications going around.
The problem was that most of these digital only publications did not have any business model in place. It reminded me of an answer that a management guru had once given to a very simple question that I had put to him. I had asked him how he would define a business model? And he had told me, it’s how a company hopes to make some money someday, one day.
But this was not something I needed to worry about, as long as I was getting paid to write, something I love to do.
Also, I had read the hedge fund manager turned philanthropist George Soros say somewhere that most money is made by those who enter a bubble early. In my own little way I was riding a bubble and making some money along the way. Of course, the lack of a business model wasn’t true for all digital publications. There were some niche publications which were exceptions to the rule.
Hence, I sort of always knew that this was a story which was too good to be true and wouldn’t last forever and I said so in several Facebook posts over the years. Every year since 2016, I have prepared for the digital publishing bubble bursting and that has finally happened this year.
The money which was keeping many of these publications going finally seems to have run out this year and this led to a few publications shutting down. Some others cut down on their budgets and even fired people, to keep going.
The problem is that no business model is still in sight. There are websites which have tried the subscription based model, but the successes have been few and far between. Then there are websites that work on the donation model and have managed to survive. In case of the donation model, in my view, having a clear political bent helps. Also, with the economic slowdown in place, the ad-based model, whatever money it brought in, will take a hit.
What about newspapers? Here the time-frame is a slightly longer one.
I grew up in the city of Ranchi. My father, even though he now reads The Times of India, used to read The Indian Express back in the late 1980s. The Delhi edition of the newspaper came to Ranchi in the evening. And sometimes we also got a dak edition, which carried the day before yesterday’s news. (Yes, those were the days. News really took time to travel, unlike in this day and age when celebrities are declared dead, even before they have died).
From what I remember, the Delhi edition of The Indian Express back then used to cost Rs 3. Three decades later, the newspaper costs Rs 6. The price of the newspaper has just doubled in 30 years. A rate of increase of 2.3 per cent per year on average. Clearly, the newspaper prices have gone up at a much slower pace than the rate of inflation has in the last three decades .
Why? Back then, the bulk of newspaper revenues came from the price at which the newspaper was sold at. Over the last three decades the business model has changed. As James Evans and Richard L Schmalensee write in Matchmakers: The New Economics of Multisided Platforms: “ “[A newspaper] can make money from charging readers and from charging for advertisements. If it increases the newsstand price or subscription price to readers, fewer people will read the newspaper. With fewer readers, advertisers wouldn’t be willing to spend as much money.”
The business model of newspapers as it has evolved in India has changed big time. Newspapers are now sold at a price which is well below the cost of production. The newspaper hopes to make up for this difference and much more, through advertisements, both from corporates and the government.
Hence, the reader isn’t really the customer for the newspapers, given that he or she is not paying the right price for the newspaper. They are a part of the product which the newspaper offers to the advertisers. This is something that most Indians reading newspapers, do not seem to understand.
What does this do? It makes sure that most news that you read in the newspapers is sanitised to make sure that the advertiser doesn’t get hurt, be it the corporates or in recent times, even the government(s).
Of course, things are going to get tougher in the months to come, simply because corporate advertisements are going to come down with the economic slowdown. If you are the kind who still gets a daily newspaper home-delivered, chances are you have started to realise this.
So, where does this leave us? Government ads will become even more important for newspapers in the time to come. This will clearly have an impact on the news that is covered, the way it is covered and if it is covered at all. Also, from the looks of it, the economic slowdown is not going to go anywhere in a hurry. Of course, this will mean tougher times are ahead for journalists looking to do ‘good’ journalism.
To conclude, it is well worth for journalists to remember that life may have got you by the balls but it can choke your neck at the same time as well.
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy).