Dhaleta Surender Kumar
Towards the end of 2007, it was clear that 2008 would be a watershed year for the print media, with a slew of new launches and many expansion plans. Despite the rising cost of newsprint worldwide, the print media in India seemed unfazed, with newspapers announcing new launches and expanding their existing editions. However, by the middle of the year, the global economic slowdown had started breathing down India's neck, too.
Advertising began to wilt and media could not remain unaffected. Still, times were not so bad up to Diwali. October 31, 2008, was their last good day, the print industry says in unison, with revenue seeing a 25-26 per cent growth till then. After that, it has been a consistent downslide.
Newspapers shelved their expansion plans and cut down on the number of pages – partly compelled by rising newsprint costs, partly by the decline in advertising. The industry body, Indian Newspapers Society (INS), advised a hike in advertising rates, which could not be implemented. Therefore, cover prices that had gone down due to the rise in competition, had to be rethought. Newspapers hiked their cover prices at least by 50 paise in many markets.
The year of Hindi
While English had its share of expansion in 2008, it was the Hindi language media that grew from strength to strength.
Business news expanded its reach to new readers in the hinterland. Starting February 2008, The Economic Times (ET) and Business Standard (BS) launched their Hindi editions.
While ET Hindi restricted itself to New Delhi with a claimed circulation of one lakh, BS Hindi was launched in New Delhi and Mumbai, followed by editions in Lucknow (Uttar Pradesh), Chandigarh and Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh). March saw BS editions launched in Patna (Bihar) and Kolkata (West Bengal).
Come June, it was the turn of the Bhaskar Group to launch its Hindi business daily, Business Bhaskar, from Bhopal. In July, it spread its wings to Indore (Madhya Pradesh), Raipur (Chhattisgarh) and 10 towns in Punjab and Haryana, including Chandigarh. In all, the daily now covers 17 cities in five states.
In 2007, Punjab and Haryana were the centres of attraction, with Dainik Bhaskar launching its editions there and posing tough competition to Dainik Jagran and Punjab Kesari. In 2008, the battleground shifted to Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
In May 2008, Rajasthan Patrika entered the Dainik Bhaskar stronghold and hometown, Bhopal. Outside Rajasthan, it called itself Patrika. In reaction, DB Star was launched at Re 1 in the city. Soon, Indore based NaiDunia launched NavDunia in Bhopal, while Patrika entered Indore in September.
In October, one of the leading newspapers in Chhattisgarh, Haribhoomi, entered Madhya Pradesh with its Jabalpur edition. The year closed with Dainik Bhaskar launching its Ratlam (Madhya Pradesh) and Shimla (Himachal Pradesh) editions.
In Uttar Pradesh, the chief newsmakers were Amar Ujala, Hindustan and the bilingual tabloid, i next, from the Jagran stable. Amar Ujala was launched in Dainik Jagran's hometown, Lucknow, in June. Meanwhile, Hindustan’s Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh) and Dehradun (Uttarakhand) editions were launched and the Meerut (Uttar Pradesh) edition was relaunched.
While no new editions of Dainik Jagran were launched last year, its focus was mainly on i next. The tabloid opened the year with Allahabad and Dehradun launches. By May, it looked beyond Uttar Pradesh and launched its Patna edition. Meanwhile, DLA, the compact daily and splinter group of Amar Ujala, spread its wings to Meerut, Jhansi and Noida.
Besides the Lucknow edition, Amar Ujala launched a compact daily, named Compact, in six markets – Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Agra and Meerut (all Uttar Pradesh) and Delhi.
Another major launch that tried to beat all odds was that of NaiDunia, which went national with a Delhi edition in September.
Not too many new words in English
In the English segment, DNA was the chief newsmaker: It launched three new editions in the year – Pune (Maharashtra) in January, Jaipur (Rajasthan) in June and Bengaluru (Karnataka) in December. The Times of India ruffled some feathers with the launch of its Chennai edition, giving The Hindu a bad time in its own backyard.
Rising costs spoil the party
The rising cost of newsprint posed a substantial threat to the industry as a whole. During April-October 2008, newsprint prices rose by 46 per cent. Moreover, the value of the rupee declined against the dollar. These two factors resulted in a hike in operating costs of 67 per cent.
However, the last two months of the year brought some relief, with newsprint prices coming down by about 20 per cent. According to Rahul Kansal, brand director, The Times of India, prices in the international market have come down from $950 to $800 a tonne. In the domestic market, prices have come down from Rs 35,000 to Rs 26,000 a tonne. "It is expected that they'll go further southwards in the coming months," he says.
Rising costs proved to be a roadblock for major expansions in the year. According to Jwalant Swaroop, director, Lokmat Group of Newspapers, Lokmat’s plans to launch new editions "had to be put on hold because the newsprint price was witnessing huge volatility, and at the same time, the advertising slowdown was making things worse". However, he's optimistic that 2009 will see Lokmat’s plans fructify.
One of the cost-cutting measures that newspapers implemented was resizing their supplements. Lokmat and NaiDunia converted a couple of their supplements to compact. "We are on a cost-cutting spree, but are not planning any immediate layoffs. However, we are going for only need-based and very critical hiring," says Vinay Chhajlani, chief executive officer, NaiDunia Media.
Despite all odds, the print industry is putting on a brave face. As Kansal says, "Unlike television, newspaper readers are loyal. Bad times make you reach out to the newspaper to know more about what's happening worldwide. Luckily, print has huge inertia as far as readers are concerned. Readers forgive you. In print, you have a degree of relationship with the reader."
Several people in the industry have found that the impact of the economic slowdown is more evident in the metros. Hence, newspapers catering to non-metros and rural areas have been less affected.
Swaroop echoes Kansal's sentiments. "Print delivers better in times like these. Further, in the regional markets, the impact of the slowdown is not so huge because the local economies of smaller towns and districts are more robust, due to agricultural income and lower costs of living. Hence, disposable incomes are not as badly impacted as in the metros. Lokmat has managed better than many others. The year has seen many such events, where there was enhanced interest and engagement of the readers with various print brands," he says.
Rajiv Jaitly, president, sales and marketing, Dainik Bhaskar Corp., adds, "The Bhaskar markets are Tier II and Tier III towns, which showed less impact of the economic downturn. Diwali remained a reasonably strong revenue period for us. We've adapted a set of target specific strategies to combat the impact; they have borne results to varying degrees of success. Identifying core, seemingly recession immune (still growing) categories and focusing on them with a long-term perspective and customised solutions, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, have helped us a lot."
Another cost-cutting measure has been to reduce the number of pages. According to Sunil Mutreja, president, marketing, Amar Ujala, "The average number of pages for Hindi newspapers has gone down from 23 to 19. The number includes supplements as well. For English newspapers, especially in the metros, the number has gone down from 54 pages to 36."
The consumer will pay more
Mutreja feels that cover prices for all publications will go up. He informs us that Hindustan, Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala have raised their cover price in Meerut and Dehradun to Rs 3 from Rs 2.50. Similarly, in Bihar and Jharkhand, Dainik Jagran, Prabhat Khabar and Hindustan have raised their cover price by 50 paise to Rs 4. Mutreja predicts that the cover price of Hindi dailies in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand will go up to Rs 3.50 and those in Rajasthan to Rs 3.
Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh, he says, should witness an interesting scenario. Patrika has just been launched there and both Patrika and Dainik Bhaskar will be reluctant to raise their cover price.
However, another player in Madhya Pradesh, NaiDunia, has already increased its cover price by 50 paise. "In Indore, we raised the cover price on four weekdays to Rs 1.50, on Saturday to Rs 2 and Wednesday and Sunday to Rs 3. Similarly, in Bhopal, the cover price was raised on Wednesday and Saturday to Rs 2 and on Sundays to Rs 3," says Chhajlani.
English dailies, too, have raised their cover prices in many markets, though Delhi seems to be unaffected as of now. The Hindu raised its cover price from Rs 2.50 to Rs 3 in New Delhi. A rise in the cover price of The Times of India and The Economic Times is being considered in many markets, such as Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai. Kansal, however, says that the cover price hike "is not being done to raise money, but to prevent people from buying it for the sake of 'raddi' (waste paper)."
"'Raddi' prices have gone up by 30-40 per cent in the recent past and we want to insulate the newspaper from the 'raddi' business," says Kansal.
In Mumbai, the cover price of The Times of India is already Rs 4, up from Rs 3.50 a couple of months ago.
Fall in advertisements
The biggest loss in advertisements, according to Kansal, came from the real estate and automobile sectors. "The categories that are affected are catering to the rich and the famous. FMCG is holding out well. But FMCG is more of television than print. In this scenario, mass language papers are getting affected because television is offering brands a better buy," he says.
According to Mutreja, another sector that has moved to television is telecom. He cites the example of Airtel, which, since April, has moved heavily to television from print.
However, Swaroop disagrees with Kansal. Speaking about Maharashtra, he says, "Except Mumbai and Pune, realtors were able to liquidate their money. Realtors offered no-frill houses and that worked very well. There have been sops announced by the government. With these sops, real estate is kicking off very well in smaller towns.” Therefore, he says, the mass language press is unaffected.
Moreover, he adds, "Advertising is not about brands only. In smaller towns, you have a lot of emotion driven advertising as well, like weddings and birthdays. This segment is still strong and towns like Sholapur and Kolhapur are giving us a lot of this kind of advertising.”
A ray of hope
Swaroop is confident that the need for advertising will not diminish. "Since our domestic consumption is larger than many countries, I still see a lot of new products on better price points making inroads into the markets. So, the need for advertising will never diminish," he says.
NaiDunia, meanwhile, plans to launch its Hindi weekly, Sunday NaiDunia, from 10 state capitals this year – Lucknow, Patna, Ranchi, Dehradun, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Kolkata, Bhopal, Raipur and Mumbai.
Jaitly of Bhaskar states, "Print will play a proactive role in providing solutions and act as a consultant in helping brands to effectively leverage the power of print."
He also sums up the scenario in the near future: "We foresee further balancing and rationalisation of funds deployed in marketing efforts, addressing metros and non-metros (Tier II and Tier III towns), with marketing opportunities and potential favouring the latter. This, in turn, will also affect fund allocation in print between English and the regional press. We foresee that a part of the burden of newsprint costs, until some degree of sanity is brought in, will be passed on to the advertisers. Long-term protection of resource effectiveness will continue and we may see deal periods across mass media being extended beyond the customary one year," he says.