An Opportunity to Refocus for Newspapers

30 Sep,2020

 

By Sanjeev Kotnala

 

My first reaction on one of the leading newspaper titles doing a 128-pagination in a Tier-II town, was to congratulate them. The title cautious claimed: ‘probably the highest ever pagination for any newspaper in India in recent times’. Apparently, the readers waited and welcomed the hawker delivering the newspaper with traditional tika. The title delivered higher pagination in other cities before delivering an 80 pager in Gujarat. Wow!

 

I know what all goes into making it possible. How the teams strategise. How sales teams work on every front to deliver what could be showcased as a return of advertiser’s confidence in print. A brilliant move just before the festive period. Ads generate Ads in the newspaper business.

 

It rightly claimed that the newspaper is still the most trusted information source. However, its claim of higher pagination reflects editorial excellence or advertisers’ interest, or revival of market situation should be taken with a pinch of salt. The PR release reiterated the point referring to a report that Tier-II and Tier-III cities are expected to lead the economic revival.  The title used the pagination story to even hint at them capturing the advertising spends across the markets it operates in. Maybe for that day, otherwise it is stretching things a bit far.

 

The CIRCULATION safety net

There is good news on the circulation front. The newspapers in the non-metro markets have reported catching up to the pre-COVID period circulation numbers. They claim of achieving 85-90% of circulation. That definitely is a show of confidence and engagement by the readers.

 

The DOUBLE delight

Meanwhile, an English Newspaper with some lagged insight and understanding of readers changing life behaviour served a double delight on Saturday. Understanding the readers having more time to spend, they decided to deliver two newspapers. Yes, two newspapers – two front pages, two business pages, two of everything possible. (The last Sunday though had only one edit and one sports page). Wow, this one was really reader-centric, twice the content. This newspaper has been at top of the newspaper marketing game and if you dig deep maybe you can smell marketing brilliance in the move. 

 

The FAULT lines

However, when I spoke to people in the market, I did not see advertisers and readers aligned to the newspaper publisher’s strategic moves. I reached out to our consultant friend Vermajee who has solved many issues for me. I met him over a cup of tea. He laughed at my designer mask and commented, ‘How can you be so blind to miss out seeing it from the readers and advertisers’ point of view. How you cannot read between the headlines and the retweets’.

 

Vermajee’s VALID questions

He looked at the visual documentation and asked a simple question. How often have you waited for the newspaper hawker? How many times have you rolled out such elaborate welcome kit? I said none. So, he raised his thick eyebrows pushed the specs on his nose and said, ‘Having answered the question. I must agree, it is excellent, even if it was staged. Marketing needs it’. I just agreed.

Now, as for the content. The higher pagination or the double delight. Does it mean that on that fateful day there was too much news or the publication till now was not covering all the news? It tells you that the efficient and effective sales teams with strong market control have managed to get advertisements to fill the additional pages the management has strategically decided print.

More pages cost money. The subscription price does not change. The hawker may demand more commission. Newspaper title do not print additional pages without a revenue justification.

So, to keep the ad-edit ratio in some manageable limit, you need content. And with no tsunami of news flooding globally – you fill the additional space with featured articles and non-topical write-ups. That’s editorial excellence.

Do not ever forget, people buy newspaper for News and topical issues.

Moreover, readers know their newspapers. They have a peculiar way to navigate through pages. This is a critical part of the whole newspaper experience.

So, when a reader who is habituated to 18-20 pages, is suddenly given 80 or 120 pages split into subsets, the reader is naturally at a loss. The readers are blind to the pagination and do not know the path beyond what the reader reads every day.

The reader reads what he or she reads every day. The rest of the pages remain orphaned. To make ads seen on these pages, the publication must depend upon content pointers, advertisement placement or contest.

 

ADVERTISERS are smart.

Every client knows that a regular advertisement will get lost in on a day with higher pagination. To be seen, it has to be of a large size or positioned well or it will attract fewer eyeballs.

 

Now, on a particular day, advertisers have been pooled in for relationship selling. They may have been given an offer they couldn’t resist or found too tough to refuse. Or they sold the concept of needing to prime the market. Or better still the newspaper created a new opportunity like Akshaya Tritiya.  The brands and local business seems to be ‘going all in’ this time.

 

Now notice, editions carried higher pagination on different dates. Safe to presume there was no specific reason to advertise on these days. Start of Adhik Mass or end of Pitra Paksha or Mahalaya is no reason. Though the title did carry articles suggesting auspicious dates in Adhik Mass and that it was one in 160 days phenomenon. Trust. Normally, it is advised not to initiate any auspicious activities in Adhik Mass. But that debate is not for us.

 

Whatever it may be. It is a marketing-sales win. One must congratulate the teams for it. The real test is coming now. Like every year, there are specific dates and days like Dussehra, Aksahya Tritiya, Dhan Terras, Ashtami, Diwali when pagination is expected to go up. Can the pagination go up on rest of the dates?

 

READER’s JOY.

Vermajee was in his element. Not all readers or shall I say consumers hate this navigation issue with double delight or higher pagination. Parchoon ki dukaan, tea vendor welcomes it. It also adds some radhi. Retired people, and the digital phobic people, who read newspaper start to end, welcome it. For the head of the family, that is mostly male, it is a shield of privacy, have you not heard. ‘papa ko disturb mat karna paper pad rahey hai’ ie don’t disturb your father he is reading the newspaper. Higher pagination, double delight all adds minutes and at times hours to the effectiveness of the shield. The question remains, how does the younger generation react and there is no good news there.

 

Newspapers must manage the E-SQUARE-GAP.

Every activity, including the reading of a newspaper, works on the principle of E-SQUARE GAP. Now E-square Gap is represented on two dimensions. Expectation and Experience. This is how perceptions are made or broken. Vermajee took a sip of his coffee and continued.

Newspapers have an opportunity. The news channels are hardly doing the job and the social media is full of question marks. With low expectations, they can deliver a hugely positive experience. This can only happen with right, relevant and differentiated content. More advertisements, higher pagination or with a highly confusing double delight experiment add to the experience.

 

And when they manage the E-square gap for the readers and the advertisers, newspapers will be in the win-win zone. The okay segment to operate is Low expectation- high experience and high expectation- high experience. One can survive with Low expectation- low experience, but a high expectation-low experience is just digging the grave.

For example, the newspaper engages the readers when it masks the face of a minister while covering the news. When it says ‘Hum Aapka Chehra Nahi Dikate Jab Aap Mask Nahi lagatey’. ie, we won’t show your face if you don’t wear a mask. The newspaper makes a statement. This brilliant work was done by Dainik Bhakar in their Ratlam edition. There has to be more of such things.

The newspaper does not have to claim to be the voice of the masses, the masses must identify it as the voice of the masses. Vermajee looked pleased with his master mantra and asked his secretary Aish to note it down. I knew it was going to cost me a bottle. 

 

Vermajee believes Newspaper STILL has a lot of power

The story that ‘Newspapers are dead’ is an old story where the bluff has been called many  times. It is still growing, though digital is making headway. But then digital is suffering from so many questions. That we will question some other day.

Newspapers still remain the trusted information provider and the opinion maker. It is a dominant media, though with decreasing engagement. The polarisation of readers is a reality along with the not so favourable age skew.

The attempts to get the new generation interested will continue with declining interest and confidence. The migration of readers to news digital avatar will keep showing mixed results.

The titles need to give a reason for the audience to pay and invest their time. And it is possible. News sites like The Ken, Campaign, Wall Street Journal and National Geographic are already doing such work basis their content quality.

The power will remain skewed towards the more significant titles. The smaller newspapers will slowly ease out of the ecosystem. The rate at which this happens depends upon how the newspapers manage the E-square gap.

How they manage the digital migration. If they find ways to engage the new generation.  If they realise that they are in the business of NEWS and not necessarily NEWSPAPER. Where differentiated, maybe niche and relevant content are more critical than pagination or the format.

 

EXPERIMENTS and EXPERIENCE.

Print and News has a bright future till the time there are publishers willing to defend their turf, understand changing audience, new emerging consumption patterns, experiment, and experiment again.  Some experiment will always lead to criticism and maybe unexpected results. But that is part of the business.

Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Rajasthan Patrika, Eenadu, Malayala Manorama, TOI and Hindustan Times are newspapers that are doing a great job. Hope they could have worked collectively for a larger cause.

The edit-advertisement ratio has to improve further to be in sync with the media consumption pattern.  The subscription rates have to go up dramatically to reduce the dependence of advertisement. Possible. Can they trust each other and collectively take a call- is not a question – just a dream as the answer is known to most of us.

The tea got over and I took leave of Vermajee. Vermajee fired his last question: Okay, so double delight because the reader has more time to invest. Then why not on Sunday Too- or that would have been too much. Or why not new format news at a glance on other days? What will I do without my dear consultant friend Vermajee?

 

 

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