The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, which brought India and the world to a grinding halt, had almost sounded the death knell for the print industry. The more than three-month, non-stop lockdown, coupled with fears of newspapers being carriers of the virus, led to near-zero circulation for media houses across India. With one exception – Kerala. Newspaper distribution was not much affected in the state, which also made recovery faster.
So what sets Kerala apart? And what was so different there that print circulation remained stable amid the uncertainty elsewhere? For one, Kerala – apart from its 100% literacy rate – has a very well-oiled newspaper distribution model where the media houses skip the wholesale agencies or middlemen and directly deal with the distribution agents on the ground. This helps the publishers keep track of every delivery and take corrective action wherever needed. It also helped that the state government decided to label newspapers and bookshops as ‘essential businesses’ like the pharma and food industry and thus encouraged their continued activity with precautions during the lockdowns.
At the Wan-Ifra Printers Meet in Kochi, held on 14 and 15 November 2003, Rajagopalan Nair, vice-president, circulation and Cinu Mathews, chief general manager – circulation, Malayala Manorama, shared best practices employed by Kerala’s leading newspaper house.
Nair explained how newspapers have to be delivered to homes before 6.30 am, come what may. “Consumers want their daily news with their morning coffee and this is a habit.”
Apart from avoiding wholesale agents, other factors that ensure timely delivery are prompt printing and dispatch of newspapers; hiring exclusive vehicles for transportation in all routes; capturing and monitoring delivery time of newspaper bundles at all dropping points; and monitoring of distribution efficiency by field staff.
Nair said they take prompt action on customer complaints, ensure a good rapport between field staff and agents; analyze monthly printing delays, and take corrective action. Then, there is a contingency plan for major news breaks late in the night and a special distribution strategy during the monsoon period, when accessing certain pockets might be an issue.
“The effective implementation of these points helps to ensure consistent and prompt delivery of newspaper to homes before 6.30 am all over Kerala, every single day,” Nair said.
Besides home distribution, there is a plan for out-of-home delivery to corporate houses, companies, hotels, SMEs, etc., which are directly handled by the Manorama team, Mathews explained. “Newspapers are a perishable product and it is critical to reach the customer on time. And this goes for magazines too.”
This distribution model is generally followed by not only the Manorama group but other local newspapers as well. In another session, Devika MS, vice-president of Operations, Mathrubhumi, explained how they keep track of field staff assigned to engage with consumers with the help of an app that is accessed in real-time.
During the Covid pandemic, distribution was fairly smooth as rival media groups cooperated to jointly ensure newspapers reached even the containment zones. The newspaper owners also helped agents and distribution boys, who were out there on the frontline, with masks, sanitizers, and vaccines.
The future of home delivery
The delivery agents, who work under the eyes of panchayats and local bodies, are well nurtured by the media groups and have been in the profession for decades together. So is the digital-savvy future generation at all interested in taking up newspaper delivery as a career? Both Nair and Mathews explained that whenever they feel an agent doesn’t want to continue, they look for alternative channels to ensure a smooth transition. And finding new agents is not much of a hassle unlike in other states.
Kerala newspapers draw readers from across the world with their ultra-local coverage, especially cashing in on the urge of the large diaspora, especially in the Gulf, to know more about home. In the state, the field teams handling the agents constantly send reader feedback back to the editorial teams. “We keep on organizing promotional campaigns to engage with loyal readers and connect with new ones. It is a total teamwork,” both Nair and Mathew explained.
Apart from the excellent distribution network, what also helps the newspaper industry in the state is a highly literate population with a keen interest in politics and formidable local brands that continue to believe in the essential power of print as a part of their ad campaigns.
Print media dominates Kerala’s ad spend
Varghese Chandy, vice-president of marketing, advertising, and sales, Malayala Manorama explained in another session how if India is the print capital of the world, Kerala is India’s print capital. He explained how going against the general trend of migration to digital globally and also to some extent in India, print media in the state is still way ahead of TV and digital – commanding 40-45% of the ad pie.
Kerala is a retailers’ paradise and the jewelry capital of India, he said, adding that the Lulu Group, which operates mega malls across south India and houses the Marriott hotel, the venue of the Wan-Ifra meet, is one of the largest retailers in India. Such brands still believe in the power of print media for their offers and campaigns, which keeps the newspaper sector formidable in the state.
Sudeep Kumar, general manager of Media Solutions (Print), Mathrubhumi, said he doesn’t see any impending or sudden fall in newspaper readership in Kerala because of the rise of digital. Kumar explained how the group works to engage young readers towards print media. The Mathrubhumi Festival of Letters, which is a paid program, has a 70% participation from readers above 18 years of age, which shows youngsters are reading. “The strength of the printed media is such that even Google and Facebook use newspapers to communicate. Digital-only clients have also started using print. And that is the power of print media.”