The folly of Indian print media being overly dependent on advertisements to sustain and grow the business has come into sharp focus during the time of the COVID crisis.
An average 16-page daily newspaper costs about Rs 10 to produce. In the quest for circulation numbers, publishers have followed the “penny press” model propagated by The Times of India.
That meant “dumbing down” journalism to attract new readers.
That chicken of low price and lowest common denominator content has come home to roost.
As circulation gets squeezed due to fear of contamination, and as advertising gets frozen due to the lockdown, it is beginning to show in the size of newspapers.
On Sunday, 26 April 2020, the combined pagination of 14 English dailies in 7 cities, was 182 pages. This included the business newspapers and the tabloids.
By contrast, the London edition of Financial Times Weekend alone was 158 pages, including all its supplements of various sizes.
Cover price £4, roughly about Rs 380.
The Sunday Boston Globe (suggested retail price $6) was 128 pages.
Le Monde Weekend (4.5 €) was 104 pages.
Wall Street Journal ($5) was 54 pages.
As Indian publishers wonder if print circulation and/or advertising revenue will return to normal after the shutdown ends, foreign publications are eyeing a chance to grab the attention of quality-conscious readers.
The New York Times has unveiled, or revived, an invitation scheme with a jaw-dropping offer. Rs 15 per week, or Rs 60 per month. That’s the world’s best newspaper at around two rupees a day.
Publishers are hoping to formalise a pay wall to monetise their digital content. There, too, the prospects don’t look too good as of now.
In several cities, WhatsApp groups distributing PDFs of published newspapers are growing.
On one group, readers received 44 of the world’s best known titles on Sunday—free.
What will stop the PDF-ification of Indian newspapers and magazines and their distribution on social media?