Why the newspaper feels like an anachronism

The era of the newspaper is over. For the first time, Indian newspapers have registered decaying readership

                   by Aakar Patel

At the World Editors Forum 15 years ago, the people strutting about were likely to be the Indians. This annual holiday, hosted usually in some western European city in the summer, had editors pretending to deliberate on the state of the world between three vodka lunches and intermittent moaning about declining circulation.

The moaning ritual excluded the Indians, whose mighty and expanding newspaper industry was the envy of the West. In a world of fewer readers and falling advertising, India and China were exceptional. The Chinese came to these meetings but, not knowing English, stayed in their huddle while we Indians consoled the Europeans and Americans.

It was assumed that circulation and readership in India would keep growing for decades. This was because, we told ourselves and others, literacy rates were still low, and the rural illiterate would first read a regional language paper before ultimately migrating to English. Everything is tickety-boo, as Danny Kaye sang.

So confident was the industry that, at one newspaper I edited, the proprietors deliberately restricted distribution in particular neighbourhoods (“too downmarket”) because they wanted a sharper readership profile. We would pick and choose who read our papers.

This happy fantasy was dismantled by two inventions in software and hardware: social media and smartphones. The era of the newspaper is over.

For the first time, Indian newspapers have registered decaying readership. A survey in the fourth quarter of 2012 and the latest one for 2013 show this for the top three English dailies. The Times Of India has fallen from 7.6 million to 7.2 million readers, the Hindustan Times is up from 3.8 million to 4.3 million while The Hindu is down from 2.1 million to 1.4 million.

This is fine and English readership has been more or less stagnant for a long time. The hammer blow has come in languages.

In 2013, Dainik Jagran was 15.5 million (down from 16.3 million), Hindustan was 14.2 million (up from 12.2 million) and Dainik Bhaskar was 12.8 million (down from 14.4 million).

In every language, from Malayalam to Gujarati and Marathi to Bengali, readership is down sharply. In my opinion it has peaked and is in permanent decline. In the West this happened over many years, following the spread of television. In India it will hit crisis levels in a much shorter time. An editor friend of mine said the other day that the paper’s proprietor gave the industry four years.

We shall see, but already the newspaper industry has no wriggle room in terms of pricing. India is the only place where the reader is subsidized. Subscriptions to Pakistan’s Dawn and The Express Tribune cost Rs.20 a day. In India, most papers cost a couple of bucks and are twice as thick, meaning a lot more expensive to produce.

The other thing is how subscriptions are sold. In Gujarati, Hindi and other regional markets, dailies offer schemes. A form is printed in the paper on the first of the month and for three weeks, the paper carries every day a little stamp that is to be cut and pasted on that form. When it is brought in filled after three weeks, a gift is handed over. At the paper where I worked in Ahmedabad, redemption rates were 90%, and this was on a million copies. Every end of the month saw people mobbing the office to collect their bucket or washing powder or whatever was being doled out. So this decline is happening despite such efforts (whatever one may think of them, they are effective) at retention.

The fallout is not waiting to be observed in some distant future. In Bangalore, The Indian Express, which was printed under the National Standard masthead, and DNA have shut their editions in the last few weeks. Another paper, I will not name it, is in danger of going under by the end of the year. Yet another, the tabloid Bangalore Mirror, is thought to be changing size so as to better attract advertisers. And all this is just, as I said, in Bangalore.

V.S. Naipaul said in an interview that the Russian novelists were essential to educating the country about itself. But, he added, with television, reading was no longer needed. Saadat Hasan Manto says the same thing about cinema versus print in a piece of his on Bollywood.

The newspaper feels an anachronism. It used to be because it got whipped for time on breaking news, first by television, then news websites and now by social media, but I think even other aspects are touched by this.

For instance the very idea of columnists paid to fill up space (what a splendid practice—let’s have more of it) seems outdated. There’s any amount of free opinion to be found on the Internet, and who can say it is inferior to the stuff found in newspapers?

I saw an interesting video the other day on how computers are replacing journalists and producing reports on their own. The fellow (and I believe it was a fellow, not a computer) who made the video added that even opinion writing was no art and was already being mechanized (this did not surprise me—I have long suspected that some Indian columnists are not human).

The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts that in just three decades, at which point many of us will still be around, things will have progressed in science so far that computers will take over invention and science and every other thing that requires us today. For the newspaper- wallahs it’s not going to take that long.

Some of us are soon going to be put out to pasture, and about time too.

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