During a visit to India in November 2008, Earl Wilkinson, Executive Director of the International Newspaper Marketing Association (INMA), cautioned the Indian newspaper industry of an impending “storm of digital migration” of readership to the Internet and other digital forms of reading news. Earlier, many prophets of doom sent out similar warning signals. But Wilkinson saw the problem from a different perspective: the threat may not be immediate for India, as it was for the United States and European countries, but it was very much there.

While assessing the Indian media situation, he referred to the aggressive marketing drive undertaken by the print media, particularly the Indian-language press, in hundreds of villages to penetrate a largely untapped area. In rural India, they realised, opportunities were aplenty thanks to the rise in the literacy rate, the spread of education, and an increase in family income of sections of the people benefited by development schemes.

In an interview to Business Line in Chennai, Wilkinson commented: “What amazes me is how the Indian newspapers have evolved in a way separated from their colleagues in North America and Europe. So what I see here are some amazing business practices, some that can be improved upon and some the rest of the world can look at.” He referred to door-to-door campaigns by some Indian-language newspaper groups and the “giant” English newspapers. “They are really tapping into the new India as people acquire wealth and the ability to subscribe to newspapers,” he noted. Such business practices, he pointed out, were not followed in the United States as a result of which American media companies had to suffer later.

“Newspapers in India tend to spend five to ten times more than what papers in the United States would spend on marketing their papers,” Wilkinson observed. “It is a tragedy if we publish newspapers that nobody reads. In the U.S., newspapers spend only one per cent of their revenues on marketing themselves.” In his view, the threat from the storm of Internet and digital migration might not be immediate, thanks to such self-protective measures. However, no developing country could afford to go without the benefits of digital technology and so the newspaper industry should prepare itself to face the challenge whenever it arrived.

Literacy and media exposure

The recent trends in the Indian newspaper industry outlined by Wilkinson have also been indicated by readership surveys since the beginning of this decade. The National Readership Survey (NRS) 2002 revealed that newspaper readership (for dailies and periodicals) had grown from 131 million in 1999 to 155 million in 2002. (In the first two years of this millennium the print media acquired 17 million more readers.) Readership growth was faster than literacy growth, which increased by only 13 per cent during this period. The data revealed a clear correlation between literacy and media exposure. The reach of the press was higher in the southern, western, and northeastern States, which have higher literacy rates. The northern States, apart from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, and Haryana, had a lower exposure to the press. (Frontline, July 19, 2002).

The trend continued and NRS 2005 reported that the preceding three years (2002-2005) saw an addition of 21 million readers to the print media (both dailies and magazines). It also found that, most significantly, the number of readers of newspapers and magazines in rural India (98 million) became almost equal to that of urban India (101 million). It is certain that the number of rural readers increased over the last four years. (The NRS 2005 is the latest published report.)

According to the survey, one of the reasons for the increase in the growth of readership of newspapers was the increasing literacy, as measured by the ability to read and understand any language. The literacy rate was estimated to have risen from 62.5 per cent to 70.6 per cent in the three years from 2002 to 2005. Interestingly, the increase was higher in rural (from 55.6 per cent to 64.6 per cent) than in urban (from 79.3 to 84.5 per cent) India. The study pointed out that there was scope for further growth in the print media, because there were still 314 million people who could read and understand one or another language but who did not read any publication. Another significant finding of the survey was that the print media had increased its share of the urban “media day”. In 2005, the average urban adult spent 42 minutes a day reading dailies and magazines and one hour and 42 minutes watching television. Three years earlier, the average reading time was 32 minutes and the average viewing time one hour and 40 minutes. Contrary to the general impression, the print media had increased its share of the day at the expense of TV.

Apart from attempting to strengthen its readership base by reaching out to villages, the print media, both the English and Indian language dailies and periodicals, took steps to ensure their place in the new media and launched their Internet editions. Although the economic slowdown has taken its toll in the form of advertisement revenue loss and also a decline in circulation in the case of many newspapers, readership surveys have shown there is still scope for finding new subscribers to compensate for the loss. And industry efforts in that direction are in evidence.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in