Cautions against relying too much on studies that forecast no “tipping point”

The Indian newspaper industry and broadcast media need to shed their complacency and attitude of denial of proximity and gear up to face ‘a double-squeeze’ challenge posed by the digital media, N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, said.

He was speaking at a seminar on ‘Media, Politics and the People’, organised here, on Sunday, by Sundarayya Vignana Kendram, as part of the birth centenary celebrations of the legendary Communist leader, Putchalapalli Sundarayya.

Mr. Ram cautioned the print and broadcast media against relying too much on studies that forecast no “tipping point” in the near future, basing his argument on the country’s relative backwardness in internet use and broadband access. He quoted Jacob Mathew, the first Indian president of WAN-IFRA, as having cited studies that predicted the Indian print industry meeting the fate of its American counterpart by 2040, and that by then, Indian media would be in a position to get a good share of the (advertising) revenue. “It seems to me that such predictions, and the assumptions behind them, reflect the widespread attitude of denial of proximity, if not the immediacy of the digital impact.”

The just-released, top-line findings of the Indian Readership Survey (IRS2012, Q2) showed that newspaper readership had remained stagnant over the past six months, compared with a 35 per cent growth in the number of Internet users, of course from a low base, he said.

“It seems highly improbable that India has until 2040 for the tipping point to arrive. The critical challenge is the need to come to terms with the convergence observed worldwide, making nuanced assessments of the pace of change, and prepare for the future, including possibly, hard times.”

Dwelling upon how India fared in the digital age paradox, Mr. Ram said the print media continued to face a ‘double squeeze’, heavily subsidising digital journalism which could not pay for itself by attracting enough advertising or subscriptions, or a mixture of the two; and the way new digital players put increasing pressure on newspaper circulation, readership and the business itself. Broadcast television faced the same problem, in somewhat different ways. The paradox was underpinned by more people reading newspapers digitally and the existential crisis faced by the old news media with no viable revenue and business model for digital journalism in sight.

Touching upon the debate on media regulation in the wake of Lord Justice Leves recommending a new “genuinely independent” regulatory body “underpinned” by legislation in the U.K., Mr. Ram said the Indian situation cried out for such an independent, comprehensive hard look into the culture, practices and ethics of the news media, and into the questions of what kind of regulatory and governance mechanisms could be worked out and put in place. “Nobody knows what the long term holds for India’s news media. It should be possible through some kind of regulation to reform the system to put an end to major ethical transgressions, not to mention rogue practices like paid news.”

Mr. Ram paid glowing tributes to Sundarayya and recalled his own association with him in the 1960s and 1970s. He felicitated some of the associates of Sundarayya: Ch. Venkatachari, V. Hanumantha Rao, Bikshawathi and Raghavaiah.

CPI (M) Polit Bureau member B.V. Raghavulu spoke on the occasion.