India’s fourth estate is staring at imminent danger. Several newspapers across the country are gasping for breath. Shrinking readership and ad revenues, rising costs, waning credibility, and an onslaught of digital and social media have taken a huge toll on their financial health. Recently published data collected by the Indian Readership Survey shows that their future is pretty bleak.
Consider this. The country’s most widely circulated newspaper, Dainik Jagran, had an average issue readership of 1.75 crore in the third quarter of 2019, a drop of 3.6 percent from the second quarter and 13.6 percent from the first. Average issue readership is the number of readers who have read the newspaper the previous day, while total readership is the number of those who have read it at least once in the previous 30 days.
It is a similar story with other newspapers. According to the IRS data, Hindustan’s average issue readership fell 21 percent over the first two quarters of last year to 1.46 crore, Amar Ujala’s dropped by 4.8 percent in the same period, Malayala Manorama’s by eight percent, Rajasthan Patrika’s by 10 percent, and Eenadu’s 21 percent.
In spite of the steep decline in its readership, however, Dainik Jagran remains India’s most widely read daily while Malayala Manorama is the most widely read regional daily with an average issue readership of 89.81 lakh.
Only four newspapers in the country – Dainik Bhaskar, Daily Thanthi, Times of India, Lokmat – saw their readership grow in the third quarter, though only marginally. With a 0.55% increase in its readership – taking the total to 58.21 lakh – the Times of India held its position as the most widely read English daily.
In the big three markets of Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata, though, almost every leading English daily saw its readership drop. The Times of India continues to rule the Mumbai market with a readership of 12.92 lakh, down from 13.17 lakh in the second quarter. Its closest competitor remains the Hindustan Times, which saw its average issue readership drop from around 8.69 lakh in the second quarter to 8.59 lakh in the third.
In Delhi, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times each reported a three percent drop in their readership numbers to 10.76 lakh and 9.28 lakh, respectively. As in Mumbai, however, they remain the top players in the English market.
Note: Only main editions of the newspapers were considered. Source: Indian Readership Survey.
So, is it time for a requiem for India’s newspaper industry? Pradyuman Maheshwari, a newspaper editor turned media commentator and entrepreneur, believes it is too early. “But it will be critical for the existing print players to reinvent and take steps to have a 360-degree presence in the news space. It means a strong digital-first entity, doing events and engagements, and being active on the television, Over The Top and radio spaces – not necessarily as a standalone entity but with content tie-ups and news-based shows,” he says.
He adds, “Print media has been taking a beating over the last two quarters if you take average issue readership as the currency which most advertisers and media agencies take into consideration.”
Deccan Chronicle, based in Hyderabad, and DNA, based in Mumbai, have been hit the hardest. While the cash-strapped Deccan Chronicle Holdings Ltd has shut down several editions of and Asian Age in a bid to stay afloat, has suspended the print edition, rendering scores of journalists jobless overnight.
The DCHL recently shut down Deccan Chronicle editions in Kerala and Bengaluru, and Asian Age editions in Mumbai and Kolkata. As the fund crunch deepens, the company may be forced to shut down more editions and only retain the profitable ones, in Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Chennai, and Karimnagar, according to sources in the DCHL.
After their editions were closed down, employees of the DCHL moved the National Company Law Tribunal, complaining that the decision to shutter the bureaus and transfer the staff was . They have got a stay order for now.
The DCHL was declared insolvent in 2017 after failing to service its loans. Subsequently, it went through proceedings under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. In June 2019, the NCLT approved the company’s takeover by Srei Multiple Asset Investments Trust’s Vision India Fund, which is based in Kolkata. Srei had proposed to invest Rs 408 crore in the DCHL, whose debt, including interest, stood at Rs 8,180 crore. Interestingly, Srei has not taken charge yet.
“Salaries are pending for five-six months for most employees of the DCHL. The stay order by the NCLT has given us a breather,” says a Deccan Chronicle journalist, adding that more employees from their Mumbai and Kerala offices are likely to join the legal battle. “Srei Multiple Asset Investments Trust’s Vision India Fund, which was set to take over DCHL, hasn’t assumed charge yet. Therefore, changes in the company structure are illegal.”
When DNA shut down print editions in Mumbai and Ahmedabad after 14 years, it rendered over a hundred journalists jobless. Most of them are still struggling to find work. But the workers at the DNA printing press have got a favourable verdict from the Labour Commission in Mumbai.
Vinod Mathew, former resident editor of the Indian Express in Pune and the New Indian Express in Kerala, says it is not just DNA and Deccan Chronicle that are struggling. “Everyone is struggling. The industry shakeout has already begun. In the south, ad revenues have slowed to a trickle. Several newspapers are facing a cash crunch, and delaying salaries,” he adds.
The imposition of 10 percent import duty on newsprint in last year’s budget, presented in July 2019, dealt a big blow to the already struggling papers. The duty has been halved to five percent in this year’s budget, unveiled last week, following several SOS calls by the Indian Newspaper Society. Many in the industry, however, believe it’s a bit late. For several months, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had refused to roll back the duty, claiming it was her government’s duty to safeguard domestic newsprint manufacturers.
Sitharaman wasn’t moved even after the newspaper society explained that India consumed 2.5 million tonnes of standard newsprint a year, but domestic mills could produce only a million tonnes. Further, it clarified, the quality of domestic newsprint was considerably inferior to that of the imported variety. The society had predicted that small and medium newspapers would incur heavier losses and many of them would be forced to shut down if the import duty wasn’t withdrawn.
“Publishers of newspapers and magazines are already reeling under severe financial woes due to many factors, like lower advertisement revenues and higher operational costs, amid a steady drop in circulation revenues, thanks to the onslaught of digital media,” the society said in a statement.
The closure of papers and magazines is putting hundreds of reporters, editors and design artists, besides scores of other staffers, out of work. With the economic slowdown showing no signs of recovery, most big advertisers have shrunk their ad spending, making matters worse. “The economic slowdown is the main culprit. Market is pretty bad. Not just newspapers, even TV channels are hit badly,” says a media executive in Mumbai. Although newspapers still attract ads from e-retailers and real estate players, he adds, it “the outlook surely towards print media is on a steady decline”.
A senior editor who has lost his job at Deccan Chronicle says there are fewer jobs available today for journalists, especially experienced hands. “It is disheartening to see many on the road,” he adds. “On the other hand, scores of journalism schools across the country are churning out wannabe journalists, and entry-level salaries are shrinking.”
So grave is the situation that many media companies have either frozen recruitment or replaced “expensive” experienced staff with people with less experience who don’t cost as much.
How long can India delay the sunset of the print media? That is the pertinent question.