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Friday, March 13, 2009

The Great Disconnect

The Indian Express's Delhi edition used a good quarter of a page to publish an advertisement last week to say that it was the first to report that the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was likely to resume office after surgery ‘next week’ - well before he actually did. The punch line was that this newspaper was the first to give the news (read speculation) even before the news actually happened. If, for a moment, we agree to forget the finer point that speculation can hardly be classified as news and carry on to believe that this newspaper indeed reported the time of the Prime Minister resuming duty beforehand, that piece of news was nothing so great to boast off. Dr. Manmohan Singh had a successful surgery, recovered as expected without any complications arising and was released from hospital for recuperating at home. He was in good health, recovering faster and in all probability was as eager to resume duty as any other person in his position would have been. Taking into consideration all other indications it was pretty simple to guess that he was likely to resume duty as predicted by the newspaper.
Now, the fact that newspaper space are apparently at premium at this point of time, especially when the country is heading for a general election, and there was hardly any need for the unconvincing boasting off with a loud advertisement proclaiming better value for the newspaper itself, the entire exercise underscores a more complex and urgent problem faced by newspapers – that of holding ground as a profitable business model. It actually exemplifies the panic of loosing out to online version of the newspaper, the proliferation of electronic media like television and the emerging social media.
When newspapers started their digital editions online and started giving their content away for almost free, they sent a strong but wrong message to their customers. The message we got was that the revenue generated by the print version was enough for the business model - to cover the cost of the newsprint and the distribution. The content in the newspaper itself have no value and that’s why it was given away for free online. That killed the value of news. When I get news free online why should I buy a newspaper which contains news that often become stale in the morning? Added to this the television is catering adequately to the need of satiating one with news and at times even surpassing our expectations.
The investment needed for running a newspaper is considerable if it is a daily newspaper with at least twelve pages. This includes the money needed to run the supply chain besides the daily variable cost. It is common knowledge now that the newspaper offer for sale two kinds of product combined into one – the news and the advertisement space. While the revenue generated from selling the newspaper had never been adequate to justify the business, the revenue from advertisement space has been the main forte. Newspapers throughout the world, or generally the print media, are going through a crisis for quite sometime gradually loosing readers, circulation and revenue – both in terms of sales and in terms of advertisements. With more immediate and intimate media like television, radio, Internet and social media gaining ground the newspapers management are groping with the prospect of not getting even the market rate of return on their investment for quite some time now.
The online version of the news media and the television or radio has the advantage of immediacy. They report the news as it unfolds. But their disadvantage is the lack of polish, analysis and views. Newspaper can fill up the void here and take up the role of specialised presenter of news adding values to the ordinary news. Everyday news can be given new dimensions with in-depth analysis and divergent views. That will increase the shelf-life of newspapers and create the need to buy them.
People familiar with the business of news media are aware of the struggle between marketing people trying to sell advertisement space and the editorial side trying to keep enough space for news. Perhaps this is a valid struggle, but it also is a valid point that the newspaper has to give adequate returns on the investment. If the newspaper shuts down there will not be any struggle at all! So, the editorial and the marketing people need to finally come together.
One point that we hardly can afford to miss here is the future of the language press. The present education system is highly biased towards the English language and relegates the mother tongues to mere second languages. We are gradually replacing ourselves with a generation which is unlikely to subscribe to the language press. This is definitely going to affect the circulation of the vernacular newspapers.
The media business roughly has a model like this – pay some people called editorial staff to develop a nice looking product called newspaper, hire some marketing people to sell advertisement space, hire some more people to manage the supply chain and deliver the product everyday. Two very pertinent points missed in this model is that newspaper is not a fast moving consumer goods and the shelf-life of a newspaper is not even twenty-four hours. The only guarantee for survival of this product is connecting to the people and the world around them. Newspapers connect readers to their community and they connect advertisers to their customers. Newspapers are the king of content. They need to be the king of all media too if they are going to survive and flourish.
The greatest advantage of print media is the high retention quotient. We tend to retain more of what we read then what we see or hear. This puts newspapers in a better position to connect with people and build up a band of loyalist followers (read subscribers). This high retention factor also gives newspapers additional advantage to make unique value addition to their content. Unfortunately, newspapers have completely missed the boat while utilizing technology to connect people. Online news sites, social networking sites, Bloggers and the entire band of social media have steadily siphoned off consumers and advertising revenue in a game that newspapers were well poised to win. That’s because they understand what newspapers seems blind to - connecting people to their immediate surroundings.

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