Credibility, Commitment and Assurance will be the Key

    13-May-2020   
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The real challenge which lies in front of the print media industry in the post-Corona era is to reinvent its product which is more attractive, more reliable, more informing, more entertaining and hence smarter than the smartphone

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As change remains the constant factor in all walks of life, it goes without saying that I and my generation of media persons have been witness to our share of changes in our profession during the past half-century. Since 1970 when I entered this profession, I've been witness to waves of change which were, interestingly, more driven by the changing technology than most other factors. Starting from the full page flung sheet, hot molten lead and the rotary printing machine of 1970s, the newspaper industry in India has moved from a single city, or at the best two cities editions to a dozen or even 37 city editions (Jagran). But it is also feeling its existence under threat against the emergence of its own e-Paper editions and a plethora of updated-by-the-second news-websites, many of which run by single room establishments.
 
All India Radio (AIR), remembered for its laid back news bulletins and “Slow Speed Bulletins” of 1970s which were specially designed for such regional newspapers who could not afford to buy a tape recorder. Moving out of sometimes-audible-sometimes-not Medium Wave radio stations, the Akashwani (AIR) today boasts of a huge network of FM radio stations and satellite-based 'Direct to Home' channels.
 
Information Democracy
 
The changing technology and its fall out has taken its toll over the years. For example, computerisation of the newsroom in the late 1980s and the following decade of 1990s left many such working journalists in a vulnerable position who found it challenging to shift from handwritten and hand-edited copies to the computer. The newsrooms lost some brilliant journalists who were so much used to giving dictations to their stenos that they found it difficult to migrate to the keyboard. However, for the younger generation of media persons, this shift has come as natural as fish taking to water. This change reflects in the quality and efficiency of the output of the new breed of journalists. Thanks to the modern democracy of information which came with the Internet, digital photography and other communication facilities, many young media professional with humble social and financial backgrounds have been successfully working as independent journalists or running their own media enterprise over the years.
 
TV News vs Newspaper
 
In later years of 1990s when electronic media, especially news TV expanded exponentially in India there were apprehensions among the print media community if this was going to mark the end of print media? 24x7 news TV channels presenting on the spot reports and viewers watching discussions on the TV screens with best of experts was enough reason for the print media to worry if the same viewer would buy his daily newspaper next morning? In the National Union of Journalists (India), the largest trade union of media workers in India, our major apprehension was whether the print media journalists were going to keep their jobs or lose after this TV onslaught?
 
Amidst such worries, I was entrusted by my seniors in NUJ(I) to study the impact of New TV on print media situation during the initial years of News TV. The results were impressive and heartening. Far from being pushed aside by the News TV during the 1996-1999 years, the total number of print publication titles had increased by 19.2%. The number of printed daily newspapers increased by 10.2%, Weeklies by 18% and the total circulation of print media had witnessed a phenomenal increase of 45.5% from 89.43 million copies in 1996 to 130.1 million copies in 1999. The only explanation to this change was that the New TV had, instead of weaning away the print reader from his hard printed newspaper next morning, increased his appetite for the news and its details which print media provides to the reader.
 
Smart Phone and News Media
 
Interestingly, this trend of more print publications and more readership continued with the increasing footprint and popularity of News TV in India. But it lasted only until a new wave of technology placed the omnipresent smartphone in the hands of ordinary Indian. A smartphone owner can now read or watch any of his favourite newspapers and TV channel even while moving or sitting over the commode. No surprise that this new wave of the digital revolution has hijacked not only the readers and viewers of brick and mortar media houses but also their advertising revenue.
 
During the financial year 2017-2018, the combined number of registered publications increased from 1,14,820 in the previous year to 1,18,239. But their total circulation decreased from 488 million copies per publishing day in 2016-17 to 430 million in 2017-18. But despite this increase in overall print media titles, the number of daily newspaper titles dropped to 8930 from 9061 in the previous year. The claimed circulation of dailies also went down from 275 million copies to 242 million per publishing day, marking a significant decrease of 11.86 per cent.
 
The Chinese Virus and Lockdown
 
The home confinement of print media's workforce as well as its readers due to the Chinese virus during a major part of March and April this year is bound to dent the financial and circulation health of newspapers and magazines in a big way. The recent legal move of the print media industry in India to force the digital platform companies like Google to share the advertising revenue, earned on the strength of their news content clearly reflects the magnitude of the former's anxieties in the new phase of digital expansion. Irrespective of what direction this legal battle takes, one basic fact remains that print and TV industries have now to live with this digital rival.
 
One point which goes in favour of print media is the readers' frustrating exposure to unnecessary news as well as to the 'fake news' on his mobile platform. Moreover, this 140 years and seven generations-old love affair of the Indian reader with his daily newspaper is not going to go away so easily. The element of relatively higher credibility, commitment and assurance is one which is bound to work in favour of print media
 
However, one point which goes in favour of print media is the readers' frustrating exposure to unnecessary news as well as to the 'fake news' on his mobile platform during the lockdown. Moreover, this 140 years and seven generations-old love affair of the Indian reader with his daily newspaper and the morning cup of tea is not going to go away so easily. The element of relatively higher credibility, commitment and assurance is one which is bound to work in favour of print media.
 
The real challenge which lies in front of the work teams of the print media industry today is to reinvent its product which is more attractive, more reliable, more informing, more entertaining and hence smarter than the smartphone. This is going to be the very next episode of India's upcoming media-Mahabharat in the post-Corona era.
 
(The writer is a veteran journalist and has worked with leading media groups like India Today, BBC World, Voice of America, DW German Radio, DD News, Panchjanya and Hindusthan Samachar over past five decades)