India: You ain’t seen nothing yet

  • Sumit Pande Sumit Pande
  • 26 Jul, 2022
  • Uttar Pradesh | Gautam Buddha Nagar

(This article first appeared in ‘Last Words? How can journalism survive the decline of print?’ in 2016. Reprinted with permission of the author)

By Savyasaachi Jain

To call India the Wild West of the media is to stretch the metaphor only a little, and that too mainly because the geographical indicator is not appropriate. For the most part, the metaphor applies. The Indian media, especially the news media, are characterised by rapid growth, high energy and a spirit of adventure. There are virgin lands still to be claimed and frontiers to be expanded. Indian newspapers draw upon a combination of aggressive pricing, geographical expansion and localisation to capitalise on demographic and economic trends. Their strategy has allowed them to shrug off the effects of newer media and remain confident of continued growth in at least the medium term.

The growth of Indian media is one of the great untold – or less told – stories in the study of media. Indian media have not received academic attention commensurate with their size and reach, but there is no doubt that they are significant. They serve one of every six humans, the largest democratically governed population on the planet. Their scale and energy are unparalleled, and their structure complex. The Indian media system is not one homogenous entity but a conglomerate of thriving media systems in nearly two dozen languages differentiated by diverse historical, political, linguistic and cultural traditions but simultaneously linked by cross-holdings and a common legal and regulatory framework (Jain, 2016).

Even with low penetration rates, newspapers reach more people than in any other country; India overtook China as the largest newspaper market in 2010 (WAN-IFRA, 2011). At a time

when newspaper circulations in many countries were in decline, Indian newspapers grew more than 250 per cent between 2004 and 2014. The Times of India, with 7.6 million readers, is the second largest circulated quality English-language newspaper in the world (WAN- IFRA, 2015) but it is by no means the largest in India. Seven newspapers in other languages have far greater reach (Table 1).

 

Table 1: Top 10 dailies in India

 

 

Average issue readership (AIR) in ’000s

Publication

Language

IRS 2013

IRS 2014

Dainik Jagran

Hindi

15,527

16,631

Hindustan

Hindi

14,246

14,746

Dainik Bhaskar

Hindi

12,857

13,830

Malayala Manorama

Malayalam

6,565

8,803

Daily Thanthi

Tamil

8,156

8,283

Rajasthan Patrika

Hindi

7,665

7,905

Amar Ujala

Hindi

7,071

7,808

The Times of India

English

7,254

7,590

Mathrubhumi

Malayalam

6,136

6,020

Lokmat

Marathi

5,601

5,887

Source: Indian Readership Survey, 2014 (IRS measures readership, not circulation)

 

Many of the numbers for Indian media are an order of magnitude larger than other countries, and rising steadily. There are, for instance, more than 800 television channels in about two dozen languages, of which about 400 are news channels. There are 105,443 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India at the end of March 2015 (Registrar of Newspapers for India, 2015), rising from 99,660 the year before and 94,067 in March 2013. Other media show similar or higher growth figures in terms of numbers of outlets and

audiences as well as revenues. As a result, India hosts the largest and most vibrant media system in the world.

A brief history of Indian newspapers

The first printing press arrived in India with the Portuguese in 1556 and was largely used for the printing of religious literature by Jesuit missionaries based in Goa on the western coast of peninsular India (Vilanilam, 2005: 51). The first printed newspaper dates back to 1780, during the colonial period, when an Englishman, James Augustus Hicky, launched the weekly Bengal Gazette, also known as the Calcutta General Advertiser, in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Hicky’s Gazette, described as a ‘witty and scurrilous newspaper’ (Parthasarathy, 1997: 19), lasted less than two years. Hicky was sued for defamation by the Governor- General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, fined, imprisoned and subsequently deported. However, within a few years, Calcutta had four weeklies and a monthly and in the next half century there were nearly 50 publications in different parts of the country. The first newspaper in an Indian language, Digdarshan [World Vision], was launched in 1818 by missionaries and it was soon followed by others in a number of languages.

Newspapers in colonial, pre-1947 India displayed three strong, persistent trends – those of resistance to oppressive legal and governmental regimes, furtherance of social reform campaigns, and a strong tradition of political activism. Each of these has persisted in different forms, emerging as watchdog journalism, development journalism, participation in the

nation-building project, and the use of newspapers for mobilisation and activism during the freedom struggle. Several contemporary newspaper titles have been in existence for 150 years or more but they have seldom, if ever, experienced the growth that they have enjoyed in recent years.

The first half of the 1990s was an inflection point for Indian media. If one were to conceive of phases of Indian media, there is no question that this period was the beginning of a new and distinct phase that continues to the present time. This phase represents a far-reaching qualitative change, driven by a sustained and rapid quantitative change. This phase is simply described here as the phase of explosive growth. The markers of the phases of Indian journalism proposed here are:

  1. The formative phase, extending from the first newspaper in 1780 to 1919, encompassing social and spiritual as well as political concerns.
  2. The nationalist phase, from 1919 to the attainment of Indian independence in 1947, marked most prominently by anti-colonial, pro-independence activism. Numerous political leaders including the Father of the Nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, were editors of newspapers.
  3. The nation-building phase from 1947 to the end of the Emergency in 1977, marked most prominently by concerns of development, governance and secularism.
  4. The aggressive journalism phase from 1977 to the early 1990s, marked most prominently by activism, investigative journalism and an assertion of the

media’s role in demanding accountability.

  1. The phase of explosive growth, a substantive disjuncture from the past in numerous dimensions, including practices, structures and norms. This phase began with economic liberalisation in the early to mid-1990s and has shaped today’s media system.

Drivers of growth: Population, literacy and the economy

Although newspapers in India are growing slower than television, radio and online media, they still achieve enviable growth rates. Projections by industry analysts suggest that the print industry will continue to grow at nearly 8 per cent over the next five years (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Growth of the Indian print industry

Source: KPMG, 2016; PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2008, 2009, 2011

This growth is partly rooted in demographic factors. India has a population of 1.21 billion (Census of India, 2011) which is growing, becoming more urbanised and also more literate. India’s people are slowly moving from its 640,867 villages to nearly 8,000 urban settlements, making it easier for them to access media. Greater Mumbai has a population of more than 18 million, and there are 53 cities with more than a million residents. The share of population living in towns and cities increased from 25 per cent in 1991 to 31 per cent in 2011, adding up to an urban population of nearly 400 million. Simultaneously, the literacy rate rose to 74 per cent in 2011, up 22 percentage points in 20 years, adding a pool of readers larger than the populations of most countries. Figure 2 shows the explosion of newspaper readership in the first decade of this century.

Figure 2: Literate population aged more than seven years

Analysis based on data from the Census of India

At the same time, the penetration of newspapers in India is still relatively low, higher than the US and other developing economies such as South Africa and Brazil, but substantially lower than many others (Figure 3). This also goes to explain why newspaper publishers are confident of sustained growth in the medium term

Source: World Press Trends, 2011

The mushrooming audience base has had the effect of moving relationships between media beyond the zero sum game that exists elsewhere. Growth of other media does not necessarily draw readers away from newspapers, or if audiences do desert newspapers, fresh entrants to the pool compensate adequately. The rise of private news television in the mid-1990s, for instance, is credited by industry insiders with increasing the appetite for news, which is vividly illustrated by data on newsprint consumption (Figure 4).

Source: Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

The backdrop to India’s media growth is provided by economic growth. India overtook China to become the fastest growing major economy in 2015 with a growth rate of 7.6 per cent, and is projected to maintain pole position by growing at 7.4 per cent over the next two years (IMF, 2016). A growing economy has meant greater advertising support for media, even though advertising spend, at 0.34 per cent of GDP, remains at about half the level of Western

Europe and one-third of that in the US. Although poverty is widespread, GDP growth has meant greater disposable income and purchasing power, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Relative growth of GDP and population

 

Business strategy

However, India’s newspapers have not grown by passively waiting for readers to be ushered through the door by demographic and macroeconomic drivers. They have adopted a range of aggressive – and effective – business strategies in terms of their offering, footprint and pricing.

Most large newspaper groups now offer advertisers ‘360-degree solutions’ drawing upon diverse media holding and their distribution networks. They aim to provide a one-stop solution to advertisers, including a variety of print titles catering to different linguistic and

regional audiences and other media outlets ranging from online media and radio and television stations to outdoor advertising. In effect, they try and capture as large and varied an audience as they can to offer to advertisers.

In a market that is crowded in terms of numbers, expansion into fresh geographical areas and media has become as much a strategy of survival as a sound business plan driven by advertiser interest in rural and semi-urban areas which now exhibit buying power (Jain, 2016). Digital technology has facilitated rapid expansion of newspapers through facsimile and remote editions which offer customised and localised newspapers for relatively small geographical areas, sometimes as small as one small town or one district (India’s 29 states and 7 union territories have 687 districts). The Times of India multiplied from 12 to 33 editions in the four years from 2010 to 2014, and the publishers of the Hindi newspaper Dainik Jagran have enlarged their footprint from one newspaper in one language in one state to more than 130 editions across 11 titles in five languages reaching 69 million readers in 15 of India’s 29 states.

Even though big players such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Malayala Manorama dominate their home markets, they often struggle in the fresh markets that they seek to enter. The strategy of choice is to hurt existing market leaders in their wallets by starting a price war. Soon after Rupert Murdoch initiated a price war in the UK by dropping the prices of The Sun and The Times in the early and mid-1990s, The Times of India also dropped its price in Delhi, where it was trying to unseat Hindustan Times as the market leader (Whitaker, 1994).

Today, price wars, especially when an outside newspaper attempts to break into an established market away from its home, have become an integral element of the strategy of expanding into new geographical and linguistic markets. Newspaper cover prices have settled

at levels that are sustainable only by the leaders in each market, the top two or three who attract the bulk of audiences and an even larger proportion of the advertising. In India, the price for a 24- or 32-page broadsheet newspaper delivered to your doorstep is typically between Rs.2.00 and Rs.4. At the equivalent of £0.02–0.04, that is 2–4 British pence at pre- Brexit exchange rates, the selling price barely covers the cost of the printing ink used. Each copy is sold at a substantial loss, and the more copies that sell, the more money the publisher loses. Probably the only reason newspapers are not given away free is that they would disappear during distribution and would not reach the reader, being sold instead in bulk for recycling (in India, the price for newspapers as ‘raddi’ or scrap for recycling has varied between Rs.3 and Rs.5 per kg over the last two decades).

Questions of sustainability

Although the Indian newspaper market is undoubtedly expanding rapidly in reach and numbers, its health is more questionable. With more than 105,000 publications and growing, the advertising pie is being sliced ever thinner. Newspapers that were settled in regional linguistic markets are threatened by larger national players seeking to expand into fresh territory. The result is an intensely crowded and competitive environment. In each specific linguistic or geographical market, the top two or three can be wildly successful, but hundreds of other players barely survive.

The downward pressure on cover prices has also meant that the balance of revenue is shifting towards increased dependence upon advertisers (Figure 6). Many in the newspaper industry believe the business model is ‘broken’ because it renders publications overly vulnerable to economic downturns that might result in downturns in advertising. Others have expressed

concern that the strong dependence on advertisers renders newspapers susceptible to editorial pressures and that this in turn impacts editorial values.

Indian media, in its current phase of explosive growth, has experienced unprecedented growth over the last two decades, but this has also created distortions in the business models and practices of newspapers. A ‘shakeout’ and subsequent ‘market consolidation’ have long been anticipated, but the flow of fresh entrants remains unabated. Newspapers in India exist in an intensely competitive space, one that requires constant tactical and strategic refinements to survive and grow. Large and diversified players dominate the market, but not without having to exert themselves.

All the same, there is little doubt that newspapers are holding their own against other media. Their continued growth is fuelled by a mix of demographic and macroeconomic factors, as well as by low market penetration that provides scope for substantial further growth.

Newspapers are not dead in India. To the contrary, they are very much alive and kicking, and determined to stay that way.

(Savyasaachi Jain is at present Senior Lecturer, Journalism and Documentary, School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University, Wales.)