First, the good news. Newspapers in the country added 110 million new readers between 2014 and 2017 on the back of an increase in literacy rates, population and number of publications. This was revealed by the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) 2017 released last week by the Readership Studies Council of India (RSCI).

According to the survey, based on a sample size of 320,000 households, newspaper readership saw a 40% increase with 40 million new urban readers and 70 million new rural readers. IRS 2017 was conducted by market researcher Nielsen and released by RSCI, an industry body jointly formed by the Media Research Users Council (MRUC) and the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC).

“The good news for print is the 11 crore new readers across age groups that have been added. The rapid growth in rural shows print is alive and kicking and has a long life in India unlike in the Western world," says Shashi Sinha, chief executive officer of IPG Media Brands and chairman of the managing committee at RSCI.

Apart from newspapers, the survey also published data on the growth in magazines, television ownership and direct-to-home (DTH) TV penetration. Between 2014 and 2017, magazines saw a 75% increase with 38 million new readers. In a statement on the release of IRS 2017, Ashish Bhasin, chairman of MRUC, and chairman and CEO—South Asia, Dentsu Aegis Networks, said: “According to the findings of the report, 39% of Indians (in the age group of 12+ years) read newspapers, and 20% of all newspaper readers in 50 lakh plus population towns read newspapers online. These numbers most definitely tell us that there is a bright future waiting for the print industry."

As many as 40 million people read newspapers online, the survey added. That is hardly a surprise as household ownership of mobile phones had also gone up from 79% to 91% between 2014 and 2017.

The best news in the survey was, perhaps, reserved for Hindi and other local language newspapers. Between 2014 and 2017, Hindi dailies saw an increase of 45% in total readership (TR), which refers to readership in the past one month), while English dailies’ TR was up by 10%. Odiya dailies recorded the highest total readership jump of 83%, followed by Telugu newspapers, which recorded 63% growth between 2014 and 2017. Sinha says Hindi particularly has grown very well not only in TR but also in average issue readership (AIR, refers to readership within its publishing frequency, e.g. 24 hours for a daily). “I personally think this is the result of heightened competition in the market which has led to many initiatives by publications," he says.

The not-so-good news is that while the dailies’ “Total Readership", which is a measure of readership in the past one month, expanded by 40%, the up to 7 days readership saw an increase of 26%, and up to 3 days of 16%, the AIR was flat at 0.6%. AIR is the real measure of newspaper readership on which advertising is bought and sold. The AIR for English newspapers has seen a significant decline in Mumbai and Delhi even though it grew in smaller towns. According to Sinha, AIR has dropped by 30% in Delhi and 50% in Mumbai.

He feels that the intensity of reading may be diminishing, owing to media fragmentation, flourishing news channels and breaking news available online. “Basically readers are not reading newspapers every day. English is under pressure. So we introduced the 3-day and 7-day readership matrix to reflect the changing readership habits and to help publishers fine-tune their strategies to monetize better," says Sinha.

Anita Nayyar, chief executive officer of Havas Media Group, India and South Asia, says that the options of TR and readership in 3 and 7 days is a good number to consider and evaluate the readership trend and correlate. English newspapers may be under pressure but Nayyar says that “there is a specific requirement for English newspapers across markets, across India which will continue".

The survey certainly shows print in much better light than what has been projected over the years. “It should certainly help advertising revenues; however, the catch is more in the medium of news consumption moving a lot from physical newspapers to e-news on your handset. But print medium is here to stay for more years to come," adds Nayyar.

Clearly, there is a pick up for English in the online space “and publishers have to think through joint print and online strategies especially for English," says Sinha, adding, “At various cuts, frequencies, geographies, the data will show different trends but it’s not doomsday for print as many predicted."

C.V.L. Srinivas, country manager, WPP India and CEO, GroupM South Asia, feels advertisers will take note of the findings of the survey and this could lead to an uptick in spending in the short term. “But for print to sustain ad budgets in medium to long term it will have to deliver the results advertisers look for," he adds.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff. Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com

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