Ranjona Banerji: RIP, Newspapers?

07 Feb,2020

By Ranjona Banerji

The latest Indian Readership figures show clearly that the newspaper industry is in decline. The extent of the drop is evident with the widest circulated newspaper, the Hindi giant Dainik Jagran saw an average readership of 1.75 crore in the third quarter of 2019, a 13.6% drop from the first quarter. Similarly, other newspapers, barring some marginal growth here and there, reported drops in circulation, readership and advertising revenue.

If you go by the rumour mill, several well-established papers stare shutdown in the barrel. Big city markets where the big names once thrived now face shrinking readership. Let us not forget the innovative ways in which surveys like IRS now calculate readership. What used to be a guaranteed read for four in family is now divided into “average issue”, once a day, once a month and so on, to boost figures. The tragedy is that this fig leaf only highlights the decline.

The result is stark for journalists. DNA, various editions of Deccan Chronicle and Asian Age are recent casualties and journalists have been hardest hit. There are not enough jobs available, and as advertising revenues are on the decline, not much chance of job creation either. Add to that the ongoing trend of many newsrooms opting to hire a mix of interns and seniors to bring staff cost, and you see job opportunities shrink even further. Sadly, it is people within the journalistic fraternity to come up with these cost-cutting ideas to curry favour with their employers.

The tragedy is that none of this is unforeseen or new. Ten years ago, a senior advertising manager in a newspaper I worked in, consoled himself in our “negative growth” because it was not as bad as terminal decline. That newspaper has since changed hands and finally shut shop. More importantly, as India gets more literate and more digital, print readership will fall further. We will follow the developed world where newspapers are largely read by the older generation and those figures will all fall off eventually as well. The issue is more to do with the medium rather than the media itself, if you get what I mean. People get their news from a variety of sources and neither nostalgia nor hypocrisy are going to save the mainstream and traditional media, in their current form.

I would also add television news to this argument. They will invariably be part of this churning. And given the way most TV news channels, in India at least, practice no known form of journalism, their future as journalism platforms is also debatable. They may want to reinvent themselves as entertainers for a better future.

The quality of journalism is not the issue here. That is not why readership is falling or why viewership will go the same way. It is because media house owners refuse to read the writing on the wall. For the past 10 years at least, the future was technology and the now the current is technology. And because traditional media houses aren’t fighting sufficiently in that space, companies like Google and Facebook have become huge news aggregators. You cannot depend solely on old-style advertisers either. Consumers are now bought, sold and bartered. Every time we use our smartphone, we have knowingly or unknowingly agreed to that.

All our media houses have done – and this works internationally too – have been to bombard the online reader with annoying advertising popups, beg the reader or viewer to allow notifications, beg the reader and viewer for money or put up expensive and restrictive paywalls. These are all old-school techniques driven by old-school thinking.

Time for fresh strategising and action now before the end gets any nearer?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. Her views here are personal

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