Traditional news magazines struggle to remain relevant and profitable in the face of challenges posed by newspapers, televisionand Internet

India’s biggest English-language general news magazines are in trouble.

It is being spoken of in hushed tones. But scrape through Delhi’s media bazaar and startling facts about national magazines begin tumbling out. A pioneering publisher is known to be concerned that his flagship product lacks editorial leadership and is helped along by the network’s other interests. Salaries in another magazine, which has witnessed a generational transformation at both management and editorial levels, are inordinately delayed as the publisher is understood to have scaled down his investment. A relatively new magazine may create a buzz sporadically with its sharp, punchy commentary but its balance-sheet is in the red. Another magazine depends on newer revenue models – from corporate-sponsored events in lush locations and donations – and is now investing increasing resources online.

While the challenges are a part of the global trend, industry veterans admit that the crisis in Indian magazine journalism is two-fold – one of editorial content, and the other of revenue model.

Vinod Mehta is among the most enterprising of senior journalists, who started Outlook magazine at a time when India Today had blanket hegemony in the magazine journalism market, and was told his was a doomed enterprise. He proved them wrong, but today, he is a deeply worried man. “No one can deny there is a crisis; it is more acute in content than in revenue. The latter depends on the former.”

Tracing the history of magazine journalism, the Outlook Group editorial chairman says that Time magazine formula, devised over 60-70 years ago, remained the basic template for a long time. “ Newsweek invested in good, solid reportage but in the last decade, they abandoned it in favour of ‘no news but views’ model. But there is nothing exclusive about opinions, erudite as they may be, and the model failed.” With Newsweek closing its print edition, Mr Mehta predicts, “ Time won’t be around for more than 2 years in its print format.”

The big question, then, according to Mr Mehta, is how to ‘reinvent the news magazine’, at a time when newspapers, news channels, and the internet had already provided abundant information and perspective to the reader. In India, the problem is compounded because of the ‘hyper-competitive’ nature of the market.

Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of the Open magazine, points to another element of the crisis. “Magazines work on the subscriber model to bring in readers but the trend of subscribing for a sustainable period has dipped. By nature, the magazine consumer is the better-read, better-educated of all media consumers, and is the first to shift to the online medium. So magazine consumption is happening, but it is online and there is no money on the net yet.” In addition, with the economy not doing well, the magazine is the first place advertisers have dropped in trade-offs with more visible mediums.

But Mr Bal too goes back to the issue of content. “Look with TV and newspapers doing features, magazines have to respond differently. I call it the India Today symptom, where magazines with old habits have not adapted yet to the changing times.” Vinod K Jose, executive editor of the Caravan magazine, which has pioneered long-format journalism in the country, agrees, “Magazines are being unable to take advantage of the seven day cycle. After watching 200 hours of results, news and analysis of UP elections, what is it that I gain by having five magazines on my desk at the end of the week? Editorial leadership is not being able to address this core issue, and advertisers can see it.”

A former magazine journalist points to the drastic reduction in the number of state correspondents, travel budgets, news-gathering resources in the industry and says, “A vicious cycle creeps in. You cut costs and end up with a bad product, which results in fewer ads, which then shrinks your revenue stream, and leaves you with even lesser resources to invest in news.”

So what is the way out? Mr Mehta candidly admits he knows the problem, but has no solution to offer. Open ’s Hartosh Bal gives premium to ‘perspective, depth including reportage, and value addition for the reader’, and adds the issue of readability. “It has to be interesting. We are all story-tellers. The reader needs to enjoy the content; the pretentious, moralistic, preaching-from- the-perch writing will not work.”

But there is a consensus that magazine journalism is an important genre of journalism, which cannot be allowed to die, and needs to be rescued. As the former magazine journalist put it, “We need to go back to the basics – good content, and ability to sell content. That is the only secret.”

( The Hindu’s sister publication, Frontline , is a fortnightly magazine which competes in the same markets as publications mentioned in this piece.)