One of the most gifted Hindi-language writers Yashpal once penned a story titled ‘Akhbaar me naam’ wherein the lead character of the story had only one dream, and that was of seeing his name published in the newspaper one day so that he could become famous.
Although by the end of the story, the protagonist’s name did get published in the newspaper post a near-death accident, it had very little value for him as the news story stated that he had met with an accident solely to get his name published in the newspaper.
This story with dark humour showcases the desirability of Print publications in India and the trust and recognition of the masses that it enjoys, something which has not waned even today.
As the one medium which has been prevalent even before India gained its freedom from the colonial rule in 1947, the print media has fought valiantly for the establishment of India as a democracy.
According to M V Shreyams Kumar, Managing Director, Mathrubhumi, “Born out of the crucible of India’s great national movement, championed social reforms and developmental agenda since Independence, all the founders of Mathrubhumi were driven by the lofty ideals of the Independence movement. They also championed social reforms, spearheading the emancipatory struggles like the epochal Vaikom Satyagraha and Guruvayur Satyagraha.”
In fact, with the passage of time, the print media has not only managed to retain its core value of trust and credibility but has surfaced as one of the strongest media platforms which eventually forms the fourth pillar of Indian Democracy.
Kumar also emphasised how Mathrubhumi’s history is intertwined with that of modern-day Kerala when he said, “The formation of the Unified State of Kerala in 1956, was facilitated by Mathrubhumi’s relentless campaign on behalf of the Aikya Kerala Movement.”
Moreover, it is the print medium which has not only been a witness to the glorious 75 years of India’s independence but has evolved with the changing times, and yet remained true to its role of being a watchdog which keeps a check on the daily activities of the government and has held authorities accountable as and when needed.
Commenting on the legacy of The Free Press Journal in independent India, Abhishek Karnani, Director, The Free Press Journal, said, “The Freedom movement has been very important. We were the only English newspaper fighting against the British. Our institution gave birth to many great journalists like R K Lakshman, Behram Contractor, Bal Thackrey and M V Kamath among many others.”
He went on to add that the people’s trust and dependence on the institution for information have ensured The Free Press Journal’s success, along with an increase in literacy. “The realisation that information could make you king has helped The Free Press Journal evolve in the post-Independence era,” he stated.
According to Anant Goenka, Executive Director, and Head- New Media, The Indian Express, “During Independence and the many years after, every aspect of the readers’ life was influenced by politics and that reflected in the content of the paper. This, however, has changed over time.”
While presenting his views on what has changed in modern times for the print medium, Goenka said, “There has been a decentralisation of power, away from politics and it is because of this change that some of the privileged sections of society, who are no more stressed with the necessities of life including ‘kapda, bijli, sadak and makaan’, have come to think and go well beyond politics. This has also created a diversification of news media into micro niches.”
Mathrubhumi’s Kumar also went ahead to add that while the core values- Truth, Equality and Liberty, have remained the same for the newspaper, what has changed over the years is the evolution of the letterpress to the frontier advances in media and the synergising with technological advancements.
“Several research studies have also reinforced that print can provide a huge boost to digital, when used in an integrated way or in a multi-channel approach, and that it scores impressively high for audience attention and brand recall when compared to digital or social media solo,” he claimed.
As per Kumar, newspapers have played a very vital role in upholding the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under the Constitution of India and has safeguarded the freedom of information by purveying curated content.
“The print medium has played a crucial role in busting fake news during the pandemic-induced lockdowns as it has not only curated content but has exposed the misinformation which was spreading through online and social media,” Kumar claimed.
Commenting on the most challenging times in the history of print media in India, Goenka stated, “In the history books of The Indian Express, the National Emergency was one event that was both challenging and inspiring because The Express fought for democracy, unshaken by dire consequences. The battle with the government during the Emergency was yet another episode which showed the world the might and power of the pen.”
What happened during the Emergency was that the newsprint wasn’t allowed to reach the press and the reporters and editors of several print mediums were jailed for speaking against the government and authorities. Also during that phase in 1975, the government actively regulated the content which was being disseminated by the press.
Reminiscing the instances that happened during the Emergency, Goenka asserted, “There was an attempt by the Government to take over The Express, the board was also reconstituted and the Founder, Ramnath Goenka was forced to resign from his own company.”
Since then, the print industry has come a long way and has evolved on many fronts.
But what has allowed the print mediums to thrive in post-Independence India is the economic growth, rise in literacy and increasing life expectancy, as per Goenka.
“Globally, the print industry has been very large, and the concentration of power has time and again rested in the hands of a few players,” he added.
Striking a similar point of view on how the integration of other mediums with the print mediums has helped the industry grow, FPJ’s Karnani added, “Our publication took a conscious decision to grow in areas beyond print for two reasons. One was the shrinking space of English newspapers and the other was the increasing cost of newsprint. In a market that was unwilling to pay higher costs for newspapers, the Indian markets are terribly price sensitive.”
Moving ahead, Mathrubhumi’s Kumar also highlighted that the Print industry is constantly fighting against the challenges of an increased GST on printing ink, global shortage of newsprint due to the geo-political tensions, increase in fuel prices and the customs duty in the modern world.
“All of these, call for an urgent intervention by the Government of India. They should abolish the customs duty on imported newsprint, reduce the GST on raw materials and promote domestic newsprint manufacturing through Make in India.”
Moreover, as India takes pride in its rich and varied heritage, the linguistic diversity leads to heightened entry barriers on the basis of both region and language which cause further fragmentation of the country’s news space, Goenka pointed out.
“As a result, most news start-ups either fail to sustain on their own or are taken over by billionaires or conglomerates which in turn diversify the revenue sources away from just news towards sports and entertainment broadcasting,” he said.
But no matter what challenges are thrown at the print medium, there will always be a positive side to them as they are a more secure option that doesn’t have anything to do with data breaches, or hacking, or privacy, as per Mathrubhumi’s Kumar.
In fact, Kumar also went on to highlight the shortcomings of the digital mediums when he said, “Huge reliance and exposure on digital has accelerated mistrust of social media, which also has a high propensity for fake news and misinformation. But when it comes to print mediums, they are a more credible and trustworthy alternative.”
Moreover, while commenting on how news brands in India have evolved in independent India, Goenka said, “Print media in India is extremely powerful and the news brands which have stayed true to their purpose, will find it easier to use digital mediums, in a complementary fashion, rather than a threat. But we are seeing few noted examples around the world where a combination of Digital and Print circulation has grown at an incredibly fast rate. And, the fall in the print media circulation has also been arrested.”
Furthermore, Goenka also pointed out that in the post-pandemic world, the print media industry has revived. “It is very reassuring for us that in some of the regions, The Indian Express Newspaper is now selling many more physical copies than it did before the pandemic,” he added.
When asked about the major challenges faced by the print player in the current times, FPJ’s Karnani stated, “In the US, London, Germany and much of the developed world, a newspaper costs around two three USD, which is similar to the cost of printing in India where the newspaper sells for about three-ten rupees each. So, while newspapers elsewhere begin with a surplus on each copy sold, India suffers losses for each copy sold. As a result of this, the print mediums depend more on advertising rather than the overall circulation, which poses a big handicap for the print industry.”
“We need to find ways to make sure that people pay for news. In other content industries such as music, gaming and movies, a lot of progress has been made on this front. Globally as well, there are many news organisations that are heading towards a 40-60 revenue share coming from readers and advertisers. Even at The Express, our experiments with our paywall have been very encouraging,” exclaimed Goenka.
Moreover, Goenka also exclaimed that the best years of The Indian Express are yet to come when he said, “We have a fabulous legacy and history to build on, and I am now convinced that the best times for The Indian Express are in the years ahead of us.”