“My concern with the current HT is the ‘Nation’ (section), which has been squeezed into one-and-a-half pages,” wrote one reader. He then went on to give us some precise recommendations. “Please try to (give it) three pages and the 'World' (section) one-andhalf-pages, with other features intact.”
The only way we can give readers more national and world news than we do now, without sacrificing other sections, is by increasing the number of pages.
But about three months ago, when another reader complained that HT was not providing as much reading matter as before, I had pointed out that newsprint prices had risen by 60 per cent over the previous 12 months. As a result, all newspapers, including HT, had cut back on the number of pages, which obviously meant less reading matter.
Since then, there have been other developments. Only someone who has been camping in the Arctic will be surprised to hear that the world economy is on the brink of a recession, and that the Indian economy has slowed down.
Companies have inevitably cut back on advertising. In Mumbai, English broadsheets’ advertising revenue in the October to December quarter fell by 40 per cent from what it was in the same quarter of 2007. As a result, English newspapers in Mumbai have had to cut back further on the number of pages they print.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (my children will sympathise with readers), I will say that if newspapers are to break free from fluctuations in advertising revenue, then readers must pay much more than they do now. Indian readers pay absurdly low cover prices, amongst the lowest in the world as a proportion of what it costs to print a page.
But right now, Indian newspapers that are profitable or are aiming to become profitable depend entirely on advertisements for their revenue. (If a newspaper is being cross-subsidised by some other business and is not under pressure to become profitable, then of course the dynamics are very different).
Yet when advertising shrinks, it also opens up space on the page for news. So even though we may print fewer pages, the amount of reading matter may remain more or less the same.
But when advertising falls below a certain level, we have to begin chopping sections (if we are not to raise the cover price). The question is, how do we fare with respect to our competitors?
Our marketing department estimates that if you strip out the advertisements, HT has the most reading matter of all English broadsheets in Mumbai. If you consider the main newspaper and all the supplements, reading matter in the Times of India, for instance, is 18 per cent lower than what we offer, say my marketing colleagues.
Still, given the number of pages we print, can we provide more national news by cutting back on say, city news, to which we now devote many more pages? Here, our surveys show that the majority of our readers give top priority to what is happening in their environment. Hence, we emphasise city news.
Also, readers should worry less about the number of pages and more about how many stories we pack in to one page. The tighter our editing, the more we can pack into the same space.
I know from years of experience that you can easily hack 100 words from a 500-word article like this without sacrificing a jot of content. On the contrary, the article will read the better for it. This week, I plead guilty. I had no time to apply this rule to this column. Anyone want to give it a shot?