The year gone by marks the end of an era of plenty for Indian media firms. In 2008, the most apparent changes in media, after the boom in television news channels, was in the print media. After a significant boom that brought in major investments, new launches and impressive advertising growth, the year saw early signs of diminishing profits because of the high cost of newsprint. By the end of the year, the entire media sector, and especially newspapers were tightening their belts and reducing their size.
This was evident more so in cities such as Delhi that saw a battle for expanding readership and advertising. Delhi is India’s largest English print media advertising market. Hence, Delhiites were witness to a barrage of free issues, additional supplements, new launches and also extensive promotional incentives and freebies. But, before the year ended, these additional supplements disappeared and plans for new launches and expansion were shelved. And there was a visible reduction in overall size of the publications.
Amid these changes, the agendas of the print media continue to narrow. The CMS Media Lab annual review 2008 of four national English newspapers (The Hindu, the Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Times of India) in terms of front page coverage shows that in 2008, the overriding stories were about international affairs, politics, national security and defence issues, and business and economy—these accounted for at least half of all front page stories. This is an expected trend as English newspapers have always been the champions of globalization.
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However, what is interesting is the significant presence of crime, law and order, and sports on the front page. What is missing is also important to note. Consider the list of critical issues that each accounted for less than a single percentage point in terms of coverage on Page 1: environment and wildlife, corruption, agriculture, art, culture and heritage. If the bar is raised to less than 5 percentage points, the list will include: state politics, health and medicine, science and technology, education, and public policy governance.
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Global trends show that the pressure of competition, advertising, even economic growth has led to media houses giving in to tabloidization and trivialization of content. The results of the CMS Media Lab annual review do show early signs of similar trend even in India, but will this trend continue? It is the easier and the most obvious route to follow. Here we need to understand that newspapers are an almost 200-year-old institution in India and are still growing in terms of size and credibility. And they compete with relatively newer mediums such as television and the Internet. People’s changing lifestyles have also made an impact on our consumption of all the available media. However, newspapers are still seen as the most reliable source of news and information and the competition within and across media has only created more interest in it. Every day, we buy nearly 100 million copies, making India the second largest newspaper market in the world, after the US.
The reigning power of newspapers, especially English newspapers in our country, is very unique in terms of its impact on politics, policymakers and its ability to garner advertising revenue. However, in these competitive times, media firms may reposition their newspapers and their priorities. In a way, 2008 could be considered the beginning of a phase when companies try to come up with unique content strategies and efforts to repackage and reposition newspapers.
After all, news is about relevance. Local and more relevant issues to do with health, education, environment, lifestyle and governance will demand attention even in the front pages as publications further shrink in size. Newspapers will have to look at these issues that are relevant to people, and provide information presented in the way readers want it. Otherwise, Indian newspapers will go the way of Western ones.
Today, unlike anywhere else, newspapers are prosperous and still make business sense in our country. In these tough times, if they want to stand out, newspapers, including English,?ones will have to be a part of the rethink all India will go through in 2009.
Graphics by Paras Jain / Mint
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization, Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at email@example.com