Love in the time of vaccination – or Indian print media recovers Part 2

The Indian Newspaper festival season

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Indians reading newspapers
The essential morning catch up Asiasociety.org via Internet

There is no vaccination for the Indian newspaper reader’s love for the morning daily. We love to publish and produce dailies and also to read them. And the business is as seasonal as a roller coaster of emotion from festival to festival – from cricket madness to state and general elections. Print media advertising is expected to rise till Diwali – and to fall steeply after the first week of November – a bit like a storm subsiding.

Continuing the late monsoon forecast for newspaper advertising in India from November till the end of the financial year in March 2022, indicates there will be a slight recovery in the last week of December for Christmas and New Year, followed by the usual winter coolness of advertising in January. February usually is somewhat smoggy on some days and sunny on others for print ads. The brighter days pick up in March as advertisers and their agencies look to spend their leftover budgets for the FY, lest they lapse and are trimmed in the following  year. April too can be clear or okay for newspaper advertising but May, June, and July are arid with desert winds as the monsoon tries to cover the subcontinent. Expect rain and some recovery in August that lifts gradually to the annual bountiful advertising of Dussehra and Diwali in October and November.

Circulations, readership, and advertising that declined in the pandemic are recovering together with the increased pace of vaccinations in the country (236 million jabs in September 2021 and one billion jabs by 21 October). We are looking to avoid the 3rd wave and get back to every kind of job and income-generating business. 

Newspapers are perhaps the best barometer of economic recovery and also the best barometer of democracy and freedom of expression that are key to creative, healthy, and democratic entrepreneurship. What can be better than a business in which you compete to tell the truth, to be constructive, and bring motivation to your readers by writing about what matters to their livelihoods and spirit to grow and build a better life and nation?!

Apart from the actual erosion in newspaper circulations – whether it is 26% or 40% in the past year, and if the recovery in FY 2021-22 will be partial, or full, or exceed 2019-20, or even better the peak 2018-19 year – the issue is transformation. Transformation to less dependency on ads by raising circulation revenues. By increasing ad revenue year round even in the lean seasons, with serious paywalls and digital subscriptions – with new products, and trimming the extra costs built up in the flabby years of untrammeled growth.

Some publishers will not change and will continue to wait for the weather to change – not understanding that the weather is a symptom and not the cause of change. When will they start spending and doing something to change their publications? According to expert insiders, despite their laments and thriftiness, newspaper owners understand that the transformation is omnichannel – both print and digital. To effect change, to highlight premium and worth paying for exclusive content, to build digital paywalls and subscription models – technology and resources are needed and can no longer be delayed.

It’s good to hear that some publishers are buying new software and, since it does not work without new spec computer hardware and cyberinfrastructure – this is also being bought or leased. The question is when will the print infrastructure also be streamlined, automated, upgraded, and expanded and what are future contours of the Indian newspaper pressroom that can one expect? What is the vision and will spending start, and what are they looking to spend on? What has happened to the plans of several newspapers that were looking to add presses before the pandemic? In a time when newspapers will need to reduce waste, 533 mm cut-off presses will become a necessity to be competitive.

Some of the significant daily news media groups are stuck with double-width and double circumference 560 mm presses while others have large investments in 546 mm presses. The straight saving on newsprint in switching from 546 mm to 533 mm is 2.3%. One cannot expect the bigger dailies with large presses to decommission them, but these presses are now obsolete and expensive to run. They need modernization, new drives, electronics, and automation.

There is another large group of newspapers that were planning to make investments before the pandemic to replace very old machines. These publishers must buy presses – logically 533 mm cut-off presses and perhaps even jumping to a smaller cut-off or a new format if they are bold.

Weather forecast

We are expecting investments by some of the 50 dailies with obsolete presses or their contract printers in not just new color towers but in new single-width, web offset press lines by the end of the 2022 calendar year. Keep in mind that government and political advertising have become a new business vertical for our publishers. Keep in mind the Rs. 130 crore ad budget of one of the larger states with an election around the corner that is already visible on the front page ads of every daily in North India. And keep the 2024 general election in mind. While one state politician successfully launched his daily in the pandemic, others are working on their news startups – they are neither waiting for either full vaccination nor the monsoon clouds to clear.

This article has been slightly revised on 22 October 2021 by the author.

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