Sanjeev Kotnala: Stop writing the print epitaph

26 Oct,2016

By Sanjeev Kotnala

 

Last week, newspapers were in focus. I read this article ‘What If the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?’ by Jack Shafer who is Politico’s senior media writer and ‘The Slow, Painful Death of the Media’s Cash Cow’ by Megan McArdle a Bloomberg View columnist. They made some much-delayed valid points. The inference was simplistic: ‘Newspapers got it all wrong in extending their content on to the web without and instead of strengthening their offline product.’ A digital strategy in the absence of any really effective revenue model was anyway a non-starter. Additionally, the free access to news (content) via search engines further weakened the already non-viable net strategy. Apps and ‘Digital first’ strategy became the buzzword across print industry.

 

Though the article has a US perspective, I find the thought holding ground in Indian situation too.

The digital wave in India has always been suffering from an Accessibility, Availability and Affordability issue. The Indian audience is sick and tired of comical breaking news oriented treatment by digital and TV. As if the secret of us having morphed into instant gratification fed voyeuristic bastard’s was out in open.

 

There is a general aversion to access and read detailed news and analysis on their mobile or laptop’s screen across generations. Even the so-called millenniums are averse to the idea. The result, the audience that advertisers seek in UnMetro (and to a large extent in metros too) are better accessible through newspapers. Newspapers continue to be the champions on ‘Accountability Journalism’ and Government support or criticism, local happenings and developmental projects.

 

Unfortunately, the print industry, individually and collectively, instead of taking proactive efforts towards survival, has been suicidally pushing itself. It is they who’ve hit the ventilator when they checked into the ICU for a treatment that needed a meeting with a General Practitioner.

 

‘Digital First’ and the multi-purpose newsroom for synergistic leveraging the capability across mediums, created more issues. It affected the way content was now being sourced, analysed and presented to the audience. In many places, print titles tried to imbibe the so-called new line of thinking and expected lower engagement levels. It forgot to concentrate on reader engagement and tried to provide too much content but shortened analysis.

 

India is still a growth market for print. The circulation is growing. Advertising is still healthy for the leaders. If one goes by the FICCI-KPMG report on media and entertainment, print is still years away from being delegated to the position of third largest media. Meanwhile, digital has to prove itself and sort out the issue of credibility of impressions, it faces worldwide. I know there a lot happened in this area. However, I am a strong believer in print still having more time then the doomsday predictors shout. Moreover it is possible to give print another blip with rejuvenating steroids.

 

So when Jack Shafter (referring to a report by Chyi and Tenenboim) points that the Top 51 US newspapers not only failed to show any growth but also reported drop in online readership in the recent past, this seems as a verdict echoing the future Indian conditions. We forget the lifestyle, the cultural difference, the social nuances before blindingly taking it to heart.

 

India has had the advantage of being behind the curve, at least in this media environment. There are lessons to be learnt. It is surprising that even with these advance indications, the industry walked into a trap. Aware of the pace of accelerating adaptation of western culture across areas in India, we expected the media (primarily newspapers) to follow the trend. Was that really logical?

 

Taking a strategic call that never pinched them, print moved in with the same staff being given additional responsibility or moved to online space. The approach of it still being just ‘News’, and a simple 7-15-day training is all that is needed; they compounded the mistake.

 

Meanwhile, not learning from past, newspapers continued to allow technology to define their space. In the past, they never reacted when overnight technology advancement changed the nature of OOH media. The new improved printing and vinyl allowed for advertisers starting afresh an affair with OOH. Print repeated the mistake when they continued to focus and promote the myth of newspapers as the best medium for tactical and faster reach built up. Brand building and differentiation be damned.

 

Moreover, post the IRS fiasco, the print industry embarked on a fast suicidal track and failed to close, commit or create a unifying currency of readership measurement. The revenue ecosystem pushed them back to an unscientific regional feedbacks, circulation and relationship selling.

 

Does the industry have time on hand? Can something happen? Not a miracle, but there is time for print in India to slow down its rush towards doom day. It has been pushing to capture the new generation on the smaller screen. The attempt to push the offline readers to shift to online versions has been half-hearted. Not that it would have made any difference. The category image has taken so many beatings in last few years that in this area, we will most likely follow the west behavior. There the offline readers have migrated to the news and view aggregators like Yahoo, Google and CNN (Chyi and Tenenboim).

 

Let me step back and share an incident. It is a comment made by a reader in an interaction with a leading newspaper. That young gentleman spoke with fire and vengeance. He told the newspaper team ‘you must feel obliged that I buy your newspaper, as there is nothing, I find that is worth my attention, interest or differentiated enough’.

 

He left a pregnant question that went unanswered at that time: “Can you provide me a newspaper with rich content? A content that will make me involved, engrossed and cement my currently crumbling relationship with you. Something that will make me read your newspaper from column to column. Make me refer to it again in the evening to read. If that is too much to expect, can you at least make me carry it to work, to read it during his break. Why must it die within the gratifying 20-22 minutes that I give you?”

 

I am not sure if there was anything shocking about this question. Content is King and Reader the Queen. Is the time to look inward and still magical create something for such readers over? However, some of the leading newspapers went head-on into following the new lucrative path of native advertising with a twist. Readers have started to question the credibility of content. This is something that may have the worst impact on the print industry. The reader is not averse to such content, all they wish is that the publication should specify and clearly highlight content of this nature, so that they can consume it accordingly.

 

Many newspapers have tried creating new newspaper navigation rules for their readers, but the efforts have been sparse and sporadic. It included the shift from ‘Readership from Circulation’ to ‘Circulation from Readership’. ‘Happy Mondays’ by Dainik Bhaskar, the retail geographical focused division by Eenadu, the creation of a phenomenon called ‘Bombay Times’ and ‘Mumbai Mirror’ by Times of India, the education and development columns by Dainik Jagran, the niche rich content by Mint, the editorial focus by DNA and the progressive social campaigns by Hindustan Times, TOI, Bhaskar, Jagran and Patrika are few such examples. Unfortunately, every success bred complacency.

 

This continued with their experiment with online version. Was the different than the offline version? The answer would be an empathetic ‘NO’. Newspapers attempted a short cut. They created a mirror image in e-newspapers and maybe a disguised parallel world of news portal. An experience that reading friendly and the new generation, both find the less than satisfactory.

 

I have no reason not to believe that print has a lot more to offer. It has a far longer than predicted life in India. Remember, the print readers are the loyal kind and online version readers like a flirtatious adventure. I feel vindicated when Chyi says, ‘But for all of its faults, the newspaper remains a superior format and much would be lost if our neglect caused its premature demise’. She captures the situation in a nicely crafted analogy. “Newspaper had been running the equivalent of a very nice high-end steakhouse,” she says. Then McDonald’s moved to town and started selling untold numbers of cheap hamburgers. Newspapers thought, “Let’s compete with that,” and dropped the steak for a hamburger, even though it had no real expertise in producing hamburgers. “What they should have done is improve the steak product’. Megan McArdie also takes a potshot with this question. What do you do when you’ve been given a death sentence? Do you live your remaining time to the fullest, or do you spend that time taking long-shot chances at a cure?

 

It is worthwhile to read the above paragraph again.

Maybe, it is when print should stand united. I know it is tough but not impossible. It is a critical need of the industry, a first step towards collective action. They should find ways to connect with clients and re-educate them on effective use of print. Encourage experimentation and even promote creativity in print. Re-evaluate and check on over innovation and in the process morphing newspapers to a stage which is an intrusion to satisfactory reading experience.

 

For a moment, print should stop milking the cow dry and give it some enriched fodder to fight the times ahead. Quickly move in revamp readership measurement. Move on for studies that measure media amplification or multiplier impact. Take a rate freeze and rationalise rates instead of a persistent upward climb that anyway looks good only in theory. Get back some sanctity on rates. Go all out, reward, award and educate client and agencies in the craft of effective print communication. Find ways or at least encourage clients to run long duration brand building campaigns to reduce the tactical topical pressure and perception. Print should even consider offering incentives for brand building campaigns.

 

Will such a thing ever happen? Unfortunately, I have my own doubts.

On my side, I am not imagining things. I know a few of print titles have ventured into these areas, but the individualistic attempts cannot break the client’s inertia or pick momentum.

 

Can the industry leaders, for the next twelve months, take a hike of 10 paisa on their cover price and give it to fund such an initiative? We will be looking at a corpus of Rs 90 crore-plus.

 

It does sound impossible for the industry. Here, everyone has doubts. The whole environment is not trust-friendly. Until the time the cover price remains the biggest tool of self-destructive entry barrier, chances are the holy cow of low cover price will survive. Doubling of newspaper cover prices will definitely impact circulation. Nevertheless, it will reduce the financial burden. It will make funds available. It can help streamline advertising rates. It can take the fringe readers out of equation. It can upset the raddi economics. The true strong newspaper with real reader’s interest and engagement will come out stronger from such a move.

 

Dreams exist. The reality keeps questioning them. I am reminded of A G Krishnamurthy’s quote: ‘To realise a dream; you need to dream first’.

In reality, the choices newspapers had were never simple. Print was playing almost a forced hand. Forced to take few decisions that seem wrong, but I respect the judgement of the industry stalwarts; they were logical at that time. One can’t really find fault with them.

The industry talent pool remains incestuously limited. There is pressure on talent retention. The younger talent seems to be shunting print. The oldies work within the big bias of their experience, expectations and exceptions. I don’t have any idea on how this can be challenged and minimised, but it needs to be tackled. In the absence of any action, we know the path we are choosing to walk.

Abroad, print has given up on the fight without a protest.

Should India do the same?

 

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