Reform or perish: Indian newspapers stare at a crisis of their own making

India’s newspapers are facing an existential crisis
India’s newspapers suffered losses of Rs 4,000-4,500 crore in March and April, according to the Indian Newspaper Society.

India’s newspapers are facing an existential crisis. No one had an inkling of the impending trouble a few months ago. It was expected that India’s dailies will continue to grow for at least another 10 years on the back of the rising number of newly educated youth in the country’s small towns and villages.

Then Covid-19 happened and the economic hardship that followed was unprecedented. India’s newspapers suffered losses of Rs 4,000-4,500 crore in March and April, according to the Indian Newspaper Society. INS expects the industry to incur heavy losses in the next six months. India’s powerful newspapers were suddenly scurrying for cover – editions closed, number of pages cut, salaries slashed and staff laid off.

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But, was all this totally unexpected? While the sudden fall was shocking, there were telltale signs of stress all round. The younger generations have already shunned the habit of reading newspapers and are comfortable with digital newsfeed. While the growth in revenues was slowing, newspaper organisations were running two separate setups for print and online products. Nobody questioned this illogical practice as enough money was coming through advertisements. While the print side managed to maintain some semblance of quality, the online side ran sweat shops manned by low-cost, low-quality people. Any attempt towards newsroom integration was shot down mercilessly.

Five years ago, newspapers in the US and the developed world witnessed a raging debate on the future of news. Leading newspaper organisations across the world started discussing ways to sustain their leadership positions in the midst of changing media consumption patterns. Papers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post reshaped their newsrooms to back their digital thrust. They went ahead with newsroom integration for the transformation from a predominantly print to a digital existence.

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The debate in the West sparked discussions in India too. Newspapers started discussing the possibility of an integrated newsroom that can process print, online, audio and video content. The outcome was not very encouraging. There was no willingness to admit the desirability of an integrated newsroom.

Here’s what emerged from those discussions.

  • Print and online divisions are under different companies that have different CEOs and editorial leadership teams.
  • In the West, newspapers are running their last lap. This is not the case in India. Though the growth in circulation and profit has slowed, there is still scope for market expansion.
  • Online editors have created low-quality, low-cost setups. Online outlets are actually destroying powerful newspaper brands. Integration of the newsrooms meant compromising on quality.
  • Print journalists are used to easier work conditions – most have five-day weeks, relaxed deadlines and targets. This reflects on the quality of work. Online journalists have six-day weeks, write up to 10 copies a day, do not follow best journalistic practices, and are poorly trained.
  • The journalists working with print media do not understand videos or podcasts. If you force them, they may quit and join rival papers.

Some of these arguments were valid – they still are. But there was no justification for skirting such an important issue.

Around this time, editors of a large newspaper went ahead with newsroom integration. They redesigned the newsroom and the results were encouraging. However, the paper saw a reshuffle at the top and the new editor wasted no time in dismantling the integrated newsroom. He pushed the organisation back by at least five years.

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The current crisis has forced some of India’s best newspapers to turn to the subscription model. Can they emulate the New York Times that earns two thirds of its revenues from online subscriptions? They will find it difficult to follow the example of the NYT or the Washington Post because their print and online journalists are allowed to work in silos. An opportunity to learn from each other was lost because there is hardly any meaningful interaction. But now these organisations are left with no choice but to follow the example of their global peers. For that they need to diversify their editorial leadership by hiring journalists who can lead the digital transformation and set up newsrooms that could handle print, online, audio and video content.

The crisis has created a level playing field for new online players to catch up with the biggies. India’s newspaper organisations clearly have an edge because of the quality and quantity of content, but the lean and mean online brigade is snapping at their heels. Any delay in reacting to the current crisis could see the legacy media organisations losing ground.

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Anil Nair is Founder and Editor, Policy Circle.