At a time when many newspapers are closing down, laying off people or cutting salaries across the country, Free Press Journal (FPJ), a Mumbai-based newspaper with editions in Madhya Pradesh as well, has been turning things around for themselves.
Though the pandemic has been cruel to the newspaper industry, FPJ has managed to tide through the rough times.
In an exclusive interview, Abhishek Karnani, Director of the newspaper, told BestMediaInfo.com how the newspaper improved its readership, brought circulation back to the pre-pandemic times and doubled its cover price. He was also optimistic that their revenue will be normal soon.
“The revenue is not back to what it used to be. As the economy is looking upwards, I think people are now ready to pump in money. So, it's just a matter of advertising also coming back. I think it will be back by April,” said Karnani.
While many newspapers are shutting down editions, FPJ is considering expanding their reach to other metros. “We would probably start with our digital and e-paper editions and then take it forward,” he said.
Speaking about what needs to be done to get advertisers back to print, Karnani said since print enjoys readers’ trust unlike television and digital, they will be back once the distribution becomes normal. However, in Mumbai, distribution will not be back to normal till the local trains are back to the regular schedule.
Though newspaper distribution came to a near standstill in Maharashtra during the pandemic, FPJ found a way to still reach its readers. They allowed readers to share their epaper freely. They carried a note on their epaper saying, “The publishers permit sharing of the e-paper’s pdf on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.” They also created a verified account on WhatsApp and shared the e-paper through it every morning to various big names in the industry and the government.
They tied up with multiple associations such as the Indian Medical Association (IMA) and The Institute of Company Secretaries of India (ICSI) to send the PDF to their professionals.
“Though everyone was putting their epaper behind a paywall, we made a conscious decision not to do that. There was a lot of fake news being circulated and we didn’t want our readers to become a victim of it. So we decided to circulate our e-paper freely. That has done phenomenally for us and our epaper readership has grown 10 times,” he added.
Sharing the e-paper freely allowed more people to sample the newspaper. Karnani believes that helped them to get back to their pre-Covid circulation numbers and he presumes, 40% of these are new readers who started reading their paper during the lockdown period. Despite the newspaper’s price increasing from Rs 2 to Rs 4, their circulation numbers have not declined.
“It was difficult to penetrate into people’s homes in Mumbai because of The Times of India. During this time, everyone kept their price the same. We always said it is very price sensitive, especially because of the leader. They always kept the cover price low and that's why they have been able to maintain entry barriers. But this time, we have been able to crack that. And that’s because the content is also good,” he added.
When most newspapers were firing employees or cutting salaries, FPJ managed to get on board some senior journalists. “We have been lucky in terms of getting good talent. In terms of salary cut, we only did that for the seniors for two months, but then we revoked that also. We have not retrenched a single person, but only hired during this time. So that quality is seen in the paper now,” said Karnani.
They created digital properties such as Bombay Debate, organised webinars with industry leaders and even in association with educational institutions to educate the youth. They now plan to launch Bombay Breakfast Club, a selective club, to be an advisory on the city. In the newspaper, they have started a Residents' Association series, where they provide hyperlocal information.
FPJ has been very active on the digital front and aims to provide more city-focused news on their website. “We have partnered with Google and they will be coming up with a product in the next six months. We are working with them on that,” he said.
Apart from that, their association with Taproot Dentsu has revitalised the brand perception of the 92-year-old newspaper and broken its traditional image to become more youthful.
“It has surely created a buzz among the youth. Once, we were read mainly by the elderly generation. The average age of our readership would be 50 plus, but now it would be in the 30s. On our digital platform, when we think of the kind of news we should publish, we target the age group of 18 to 30 years,” he said.
This has had its impact on the revenue. “Even if it is not directly on the print advertising, it has definitely added revenue to the brand,” he said.
They have so far done over 100 campaigns with the agency. Among their initiatives was the ‘Free Initiatives’ campaign, for which the agency recently won a Gold in the Media Lotus category at Adfest 2020. As part of the campaign, they leveraged the word ‘free’ on their masthead and replaced the word ‘press’ with the problems they wanted to raise awareness about such as education, sports, food, etc.
It was also appreciated by the jury head of Media Lotus Cyril Drouin, who said, “Taproot Dentsu’s Free Press Journal campaign is my favourite Gold winner because it’s really a bold idea and a really brave idea for a newspaper to change their header.”
Speaking about the campaign, Karnani said, “The masthead and the front page have been the most sacred place for the newspaper. And we thought a lot about it internally if this can be done to create awareness. But it was time to do it and we got a phenomenal response for it.”
Being a legacy organisation, Karnani says bringing change was difficult. “It is not easy to implement something like this. But because of the current times, people are ready to accept change more than they were otherwise. It's easier to convince people because of the timing. Before, we would not have been able to do a lot of things that we are doing today,” he said.