It becomes clear from the two-day event in Kochi on 14 and 15 September 2023, that the Indian print media’s somewhat partial recovery will continue and that its resilience presents an exception to the global trends. The industry together with its large aspirational audience will figure out the at times bewildering multi-channel integration of information, civic responsibility, nation-building, livelihood, and business imperatives.
This makes it an influential political and entertainment platform and a social good supported by readership and advertising revenues. The biggest impetus is a growing economy and an increasingly empowered and literate population with substantial headroom in the department of ‘figuring things out.’
What better opportunity for a brick-and-mortar industry to husband economic growth and show leadership in mastering the technological fragmentation of the universe by presenting high-quality, fact-checked, and evidence-based information both in print and digital media channels. In addition, the opportunity to curate and provide coherent thinking and knowledge of the best local and global thinkers – not only with ink on paper, but with podcasts, videos, and real in-person interactive book fairs and events.
It is likely that the news publishing industry will continue to capitalize on the higher cultures of art and science and serve as a bridge from information to knowledge. The Indian newspapers taken collectively already do this, each attempting some marketing-led editorial innovation or connection in terms of depth and reach – and this contributes to their resilience.
The advertising stream that ran in parallel during the two days was compelling in its attempt to show the need for news brands to leverage the integration of multi-channel touchpoints for their advertising customers. One of the presentations in that stream showed that although the Indian media and entertainment advertising expenditure including that of print continues to grow in double digits, the market share of print declined by 1% in 2022 over the previous year, while that of digital grew by 4%. (Interestingly, television too declined by 4% in that year).
This was a printers summit and thus retained some aspects of its still relevant discussion of newspaper production – the participants and winners of the awards for print excellence made for a large part of the audience. Conference sessions took up some technical issues relating to sustainability and other discussion touched on the need for collaboration in production and distribution. However, there were perhaps at least two elephants in the room – the first being the overall and long-term declining rate of growth in the industry and the advertising shift towards digital which points to the need for attracting investment that will fuel the mergers, acquisitions, and diversifications needed for consolidating the market.
The second and related elephant emanates from the still considerable value and prospects of mid-term growth and value of the ink and paper part of the industry for at least the next fifteen years. On the one hand, more investment is needed for integrating the bottomless pit of what goes under the name of ‘digital’ and on the other, creative investments are needed in more automated and efficient machines that can also print color supplements, hyperlocal, and commercial products. A technically inclined Indian newspaper publisher explained this many years ago – “The mechanical structure of a large automated newspaper press can last twenty-five years, but it generally becomes technologically obsolete in ten years.”
Many of the large newspaper machines in the country have now become technologically obsolete and some have also reached their mechanical old age. Replacing their arthritic electronics and spare parts may require substantial energy and focus. Add to this the dire need for efficiency and automation where running a newspaper press through the night is no longer the ambition of our best and brightest resources.
It must be conceded that the print quality of the Indian newspapers remains among the best in the world (as acknowledged by their successful biennial participation in the Ifra International Color Quality Club) but its editorial quality although collectively excellent, is individually hampered by the lack of foresight and self-belief of many of the publishers who continue to sell their audience short and keep driving them away to alternate digital media and Youtube.
While from the stage, many of the Indian print media spokespersons kept asserting its great credibility, several participants at the conference shared their apprehension offline that the industry will have to work very hard to regain its credibility. The industry to some extent continues to compromise, discount, and throw away its greatest opportunity – the country’s constitutional democracy and its guarantees of equity and freedom of expression.
These guarantees require continuous reminders and renewal – by supporting fair, honest journalism and opinion and taking on both self-censorship and the overt attempts of various agencies to muzzle the dissent which, as the Supreme Court has commented, is the right of every citizen and journalist.