The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the shift to digital readership among Indian dailies. It also highlighted the overall slowing of print circulation and ad revenues moving towards digital in the long term. Now, in mid-February 2022, there are signs that the Covid-19 pandemic is subsiding and that daily circulation at least for the major dailies in each region are returning as well as advertising. What follows is a report from one of the leading Hindi dailies being published from multiple centers in North India.
Daily newspapers in India that relied mainly on advertising revenue are gradually recovering from the hit they took in the 18 months that followed the country-wide lockdown in end-March 2020. The third quarter of the 2021-22 financial year saw these numbers coming back at a leading North Indian daily. “After the pandemic, Amar Ujala had record sales in the October to December 2021 quarter,” says Pradeep Unny, vice-president of production and commercial print at Amar Ujala. “No doubt newspaper revenues had dried up but now they are coming back on track. However, we never stopped production – and for the survival of the newspaper, we did have to sell ads at discounted rates.”
According to Unny, print advertising is coming back for sectors of the economy such as entertainment, hospitality, travel, community, and industry events that could not function under the pandemic constraints. A similar story is told by a local daily in one of the smaller cities in North India, “Cinema theaters were shut down, and no new movies were released. So the big ads for the newspaper’s front page stopped, and so did the ads for cars and bikes. But now the ads are coming back.”
The paper shortage
We discussed the newsprint supply situation with Unny, keeping in mind the general shift of global manufacturers away from publication papers and also the ongoing strike at UPM, possibly till mid-March. In addition, the availability of containers and shipping have driven the price and time spans of logistics through the roof.
However, Unny feels that the newsprint situation in India is to some extent artificial. It is hostage to the grey market in raw materials, according to him. “There is no shortage of paper in the market, but there is a grey market which increases the price of the paper. Earlier we were purchasing newsprint for US$ 360 (approximately Rs 27,000) but now the price has risen to US$ 800 (approximately Rs 60,000). You pay more and then you get the paper,” he says.
However, he agrees that some countries have cut back on paper production for environmental and other reasons. He believes that China is likely to resume newsprint production from April 2022 and this will help bring down or moderate the price of newsprint. Local recovery of newspapers for repurposing as bags and for recycling did take a hit in the lockdowns when publications were stopped from March to May 2020.
In the past 22 months of the pandemic, Amar Ujala’s daily pagination went down from 24 to 12 pages but now it is rising and on track – often reaching 24 pages again. Circulation went down from 3.2 million to 2.3 million copies daily and some of the readers who had shifted to the ePaper and now coming back to print. Unny says, “Our readership is increasing by over 50,000 copies every month, and this shift is because the readers are coming out of the traumatic conditions of Covid-19.”
It is likely that some of the newspaper readership and ad revenues that have shifted to digital platforms may not return anytime soon. However, Pradeep Unny feels that there there is still headroom for the industry to grow, and there are many myths that the industry needs to counter. Aware of the need for digital transformation, he is still skeptical of an immediate large shift to digital, believing that in our country, printed newspapers will eventually, over time, resume their growth.