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‘Print is not reviving; it has already revived’

Is print in India really reviving or are we just catching up? Three industry insiders joined a roundtable discussion on the post pandemic revival of print and the ensuing business opportunities during WAN-IFRA’s recent Indian Printers Summit in New Delhi. Aultrin Vijay reports

While COVID wreaked havoc on the print newspaper industry, there are at last some signs of recovery for India’s publishers, with some industry experts reporting rebounding circulation and advertising revenues. The Indian Printers Summit, held in New Delhi (September 14-15), shed light on the advertisement expenditure scenario and the revival of print in India post pandemic.

“When we talk about the revival of print, it’s usually about the recovery post COVID ­(after March 2020), keeping 2019 figures as the benchmark. Kerala was least affected, but the revival was not that great,” said Varghese Chandy, vice-president – Marketing and Advertising Sales, Malayala Manorama. Kerala had the least drop in circulation, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC). As far as advertising is concerned, “there has been a huge drop,” said Chandy, adding, “However, the quarter starting July, we reached the 2019 figures both in value and volume.”

According to the ABC, Malayala Manorama had a circulation figure of 2308612 (July-December 2019) and it is one of the most popular vernacular newspapers in southern India, or perhaps among Malayalees.

For Harrish M Bhatia, president – Ad Sales, DB Corp, however, COVID was a “boon and it created a lot of opportunities”. He said that the dependence on digital and social media during the pandemic brought the reliability quotient under the spotlight. “A lot of fake news was spread through social media in the last two years. This has brought back confidence in print, which has reinforced its status as a very reliable medium for news and information,” Bhatia said. “Print media has a huge credibility today for sure.”

Print is reviving, or has perhaps revived, according to Bhatia. DB Corp predominantly caters to the tier-2 and tier-3 towns (which have populations between 50000 and below 100000; and 20000 and below 50000, respectively). Dainik Bhaskar enjoyed a total circulation of 4,579,051 from July to December 2019 and it’s one of the top selling newspapers in India.

“In terms of circulation, we are about 93-94 per cent now,” said Bhatia, adding that the print media will stay relevant in the tier-2 and tier-3 towns and “nobody can touch it”. Bhatia reasoned that the distribution of print media in India is one of the cheapest in the world and that Dainik Bhaskar is one of the most inexpensive newspapers across India.

Declining advertisers

According to Suresh Balakrishna, chief revenue officer, The Hindu Group, the company’s circulation is now close to 90 per cent and ad revenues are back to 2019 levels. However, he believed that there has been an erosion of advertiser base lately. “In 2019, there were roughly 197000 advertisers in print (both English and vernacular). Last year it was 163000. We have lost around 30000 advertisers. English has lost a little more than vernacular. So, the number of advertisers is shrinking,” he said.

The reasons are manifold. Bhatia said: “Our advertisers are mostly from categories such as real estate, jewellery, health, education and lifestyle. We witnessed lifestyle and consumer electronics segments suffer during the pandemic, because products were very affordable in online marketplace. So, the retailers are feeling the heat. “But real estate, health and jewellery categories are booming. In fact, this year real estate had almost 45 per cent growth compared to 2019.”

Festivities boost ad sales

This year, the festival season played a significant role in the growth of ad revenues in Kerala, thanks to Onam, an annual harvest festival celebrated in the region. The southern state virtually had no celebrations for the past four years, as it witnessed a host of calamities such as Nipah virus, floods and of course, COVID-19, which affected ad sales during the festival season. “Perhaps, this year there were no serious issues,” Chandy said.

However, Chandy observed the absence of large brands advertising during Onam this year. Then how did the ad revenues increase? “That was primarily because of retail,” said Chandy. “In Kerala, we have retail giants such as Lulu, MyG, Oxygen, Pittappillil, Bismi and more. These were the guys who were advertising in the 30 days window before Onam,” he said. “Once the jacket comes in the newspaper, I drive towards the supermarkets that have advertised, and I was so happy to see the crowds thronging the outlets after the jackets have appeared.”

Another example is of a retail giant, which advertised in newspapers before opening its third showroom in a small town in Kottayam. “The next day, the owner called me and said that the sale on launch day was Rs 6.1 crore (approximately US$ 744000),” Chandy said. The advertisements were indeed working and so was print.

Chandy claimed that local brands were picking up steam and eating into the share of large brands. “I think they (big brands) are losing out.” He said this because large brands are shying away from advertising in newspapers. Why? That’s because big brands have other plans, according to Bhatia.

“It’s not that big brands are not advertising. Rather, the money has been shifted to in-shop branding in either their dedicated brand store or retail/multi-brand outlets,” Bhatia said. This means advertisements in small retail outlets, television and newspaper have been minimised. The automobile segment, on the other hand, is advertising in newspapers as usual, according to Balakrishna. “Automobile players are still advertising even if their inventories are sold out,” he said. Why so? “‘Unless I put a jacket in the newspaper, nobody would believe that I’ve launched a car,’” Balakrishna said, quoting a marketing head of a car manufacturing company.

How to stay relevant

Is pandemic the real villain? Chandy disagrees. “One thing that was happening much before the COVID era was the organic slowdown of print in circulation and advertising. I think that is something that all of us need to be worried about. COVID-19 is gone, but we have to tackle the organic slowdown,” he said.

Chandy said he believed that attracting the young audience was a probable solution. “We have to attract the young audience, who are the GenX of tomorrow. If you do not add them to your readership, we will certainly face serious problems,” he said. He suggested that educating the youngsters in the advertising agencies and marketing departments was paramount, because “they do not understand the metrics and various benefits of newspaper and their knowledge about print is really sad”.

Chandy said: “One of the challenges we are facing is about perception. Most of the advertising decisions are taken on how things are perceived from a particular region’s point of view. But the reality is different. “For example, there is 36 per cent of penetration of print in India; in Kerala it is 87.5 per cent. It’s perhaps the only state where the penetration is more than television. So, the average figures may not be true for all regions, and it may vary for each region. The problem arises when these average figures are considered for taking decisions that affect pan India.”

According to a GroupM projection on advertising expenditure in India for 2022, print has a media share of 11.7 per cent. For television, it’s 39 per cent and for digital it is 45 per cent. But in Kerala, the share of ad expenditure for print is close to 50 per cent. “Print is still being used heavily, which people do not understand. There are nuances and specifics of the market, which people do not understand, and it must be communicated,” Chandy said. “These are the actual problems that can be addressed only if competitions stand together and fight this battle.”

For Bhatia, however, value addition is key to stay relevant in the business. Identifying the expectation of the reader, especially youngsters, and catering to it is paramount. “We must be able to add value to a news that came out a day ago. Content has to be the king. Youngsters are now moving towards digital. So, we must think of ways to generate content that would make them pick up a newspaper and read it,” Bhatia said.

And how will print continue to be relevant? Bhatia said, “I think content is king. If you have good content, you’ll do well. A story can break in digital media right now, but the newspaper must add value to story before it comes out the next morning.”

(The writer is a multimedia journalist with WAN-IFRA South Asia.)

November 2022