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News sans paper?

Print perfect newspapers are struggling in the West. But India is in love with them. Reason: rising literacy and low Net penetration, reports Ashok Das.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2010 13:12 IST
Ashok Das

A clash of the civilisations of a new kind? So it seems.

When newspapers in the United States and Western Europe are dying a slow death for quite a few years now, the emerging world’s love for the printed word is still growing.

The 300-year-old newspaper industry in the US is losing out to its younger cousin — the worldwide web. For, three-fourths of the total population in the US has access to the Internet. The same is the case in Western Europe.

This perception was confirmed by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) in The World Press Trends report, released at a four-day conclave of publishers and editors in Hyderabad in December 2009.

The report showed a silver lining, too.

Even as newspapers continue to fight an almost-lost battle with the Internet and search engines in the developed world, circulation figures have posted impressive growth rates in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Take the case of India. Although more than 100 newspapers have shut shop in the US since January 2008, the industry is still growing here. According to consulting and auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), it grew by 7 per cent in 2008.

A survey done by the National Book Trust and National Council of Applied Economic Research says almost 25 per cent of the 333 million-odd Indian youth get a newspaper at home.

The virtual war

Many experts blame search engine giant Google, which puts newspaper content online for free, for the decline in newspaper circulation in the West. But Google recently announced that it would limit free page views to five per day by updating its search engine.

After the free page views, the search engine will reroute the user to pay for registration pages. This should help boost revenues for newspapers.

But experts say that to compete with the Internet, newspapers need to re-organise their newsrooms, re-invent content and re-evaluate revenue streams.

Still relevant

The believer’s choice is still the newspaper. “I am a firm believer that newspapers will never die,” said Sanjay Gupta, chief executive officer and editor-in-chief of Jagran Prakashan Ltd, which owns the mass circulation newspaper Dainik Jagran.

Gupta was confident that “with literacy levels steadily increasing and Internet access being available to only five per cent of the population, printed newspapers will remain popular”.

He also observed that the print media — as the newspaper industry is popularly known here — was more efficient than news portals and, most important, what applied to the developed world did not necessarily apply to developing countries.

The firmest assurance came from Juan Senor, vice-president of the International Media Consulting Group. He said, “No medium had ever killed another. Films didn’t kill theatre and television didn’t kill radio.”

“To survive, newspapers need to combine compelling story-telling with both free content that answers who, what, where and when and premium content concerning how, why and what next.”

The global scene

Globally too — except, of course, the US and Western Europe — there is a glimmer of hope. Timothy Balding, WAN-IFRA’s co-chief operating officer, said while releasing the World Press Trends report that the global newspaper industry was not only surviving, but was also thriving.

The global circulation figure was up 1.3 per cent in 2008 and about 9 per cent during the last five years. What’s more, newspapers are still ahead of the Internet, as 1.9 billion people — or 34 per cent of the world's population — bought a newspaper every day, while only 24 per cent used the Internet for the daily dose of information.

Turnaround strategy

Balding said newspapers in the developed world were slowly turning around, with a total strategy overhaul.

He said the struggle for survival “doesn’t tell the whole story, as newspaper companies in the ‘old’ markets have embraced digital platforms and new forms of print publishing”.

“They have actually grown their audience reach and revenues even though their print circulations have come under pressure.”

This could mean that newspapers sans paper may be the new reality.

The report also said digital revenue was less than $6 billion of the newspapers’ total revenue of $182 billion in 2009. It predicted that it would grow to only about $8.4 billion by 2013.

Bucking the trend

Martin Avillez Figueiredo, a Portuguese journalist, has proved that the newspaper industry still has enough juice left. He launched a newspaper, I — which stands for Informacao or information — during the worst recession and turned it into a huge success.

His success mantra: Approach design and content the way the reader thinks and not the way editors do.

“I has proved all pundits wrong by gaining circulation month after month and bagging the European Newspaper award for 2009,” said Figueiredo.