Time for newspapers to up cover price!

08 Jul,2019

 

By Pradyuman Maheshwari

 

The print media in India has reason to be sore with the government. Barring a few, most newspapers and magazine weren’t too negative on the previous regime, and in a sense contributed to its return to power. While some publications may indeed have aired anti-Narendra Modi views in the run-up to the elections, the dosage of that was limited and, one may say, controlled.

Indian newspapers have forever worked on a lopsided business model. Masterminded by Times of India group vice-chairman Samir Jain in the 1980s, newspapers were being sold at very low cover price to attract and retain readers, and combat (and hence bleed) competition. The ‘invitation pricing’ policy was followed relentlessly by TOI and almost every old and new newspaper thereafter. Casseroles, soaps and assorted gifts were offered to readers in the form of subscription offers. But the price of the papers – especially the English-language ones – were far, far below the monies that went into the making of each issue.

 

Newspapers that have profited over the last three decades have done so thanks to their leadership and thereby their ability to attract advertising or through allied or dramatically different businesses. Advertising from government or quasi-government organisations ensures that the money registers keep ringing even as the cost to consumer continues to be abysmally low.

 

Over the last few years, as in the case of internationally sourced products like crude oil, the price of newsprint has also been rising. This has adversely impacted the bottomline of most print media businesses. In fact in the last few years, price of imported newsprint that is largely deployed by English as well as high quality regional papers, had skyrocketed. It went south in late-2018, but by then the ad volumes on print touched a new low. Adspends have been low for other media too, but print has been hit badly with digital steadily weaning away its readers. The Indian Readership Survey 2019 may have shown growth for newspapers but that’s only with the Total Readership metric. With the more widely acceptable Average Issue Readership, the future doesn’t look very bright – esp in the metros.

 

So if the newsprint prices go north, the cover price should’ve also headed the same way, right? No, instead, newspapers have traditionally been quick to cut their content often even rejigging the mix. Publishers are worried that a hike in the cover price will impact their readership, which could well be true, but clearly the newspaper organisations need to integrate their digital operations better and foresee a future that helps them make monies from their e-presence.

 

To blame the government for their new-found woes is incorrect. I am sure Prime Minister Narendra Modi will reverse the import duty hike. He has done that in the past, and could do it again.

 

Yes, our readers are fickle in their ways. They don’t mind spending Rs 20 or whatever on a vada pav, idli sambar, chaat or jhaal-muri, but they will crib about Rs 10 for a copy of the morning newspaper or Rs 60 or 100 for a glossy and informative magazine.

 

Newspaper owners meanwhile need to smell the coffee – or ink – and up the cover price. Over-dependence on government largesse is detrimental to an independent media. And it’s time that consumers learn to pay for quality content.

 

 

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