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Fresh surge in Covid-19 cases unlikely to deter print recovery; medium back on strong growth trajectory, say industry experts

As revenues and circulation slowly limp back to normal, speaks to various stakeholders to understand how the print medium has changed a year since the lockdown and if the fresh wave of the pandemic will threaten the medium's recovery

Just when the newspaper industry was limping back to normalcy after a year of shrunken circulation and revenue, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic has posed another challenge for the embattled medium.

Experts, however, feel that unlike last year, newspapers won't be hit severely because of the present wave.

When the lockdown began in March last year, the circulation of newspapers took a massive hit as subscribers were wary of touching them due to fears and the misinformation that they could be carriers of Covid-19 virus.

This led to a nearly 50% dip in the circulation of newspapers, especially in metros. The revenues of the publications were decimated too.

Experts, however, feel that a repeat of 2020 won't happen this year as readers understand what can and cannot spread Covid-19 and the government also seems to understand the disruption a lockdown can cause to the supply chain.

"Newspapers have also been able to dispel this misinformation on the back of which circulation has returned to almost 85% of pre-Covid levels," said a leading publisher.

"Advertisers also understand the advantage print has in the current environment of clutter and rising fake news on digital," he added.

The medium that used to command advertising in the range of Rs 19,000 crore in 2019 has seen its fortunes falling by nearly 40%. According to various adex projection reports, print is likely to command an adex of nearly Rs 12,000 crore in 2021.

Shashank Srivastava

Reaffirming his faith in print, Shashank Srivastava, Executive Director, Sales and Marketing, Maruti Suzuki India, said that he believes that print would remain strong going forward, though the spending pattern may change. “Print advertising will continue for a long time. But it can become purely tactical as we go along. In some product categories right now, a lot of expenditure is still very much on the top of the funnel. But I think going forward it might disappear from the top to the lower part of the funnel,” he said.

He said that though digital is a strong competitor at the lower end of the funnel, print is still a preferred destination for advertisers.

“Both the traditional television media as well as the digital media are getting some traction, especially at the lower end of the funnel. Earlier print used to be the king at the lower end of the funnel, but now digital is also a competitor there. But having said that, print has its own place and digital is used as a multiplier more than an actual listing. So that way on the tactical advertisement front, print still remains very strong,” he said.

Sundeep Nagpal

Sundeep Nagpal, Founder Director, Stratagem Media, said, “Print has not suffered as much as digital has prospered. It's therefore incorrect to say that all the print budgets are moving towards digital. In my opinion, digital has done what it could have done over a period of three years in one year's time. Digital’s growth has only been fast-tracked because of the pandemic. But that does not mean that print has suffered very badly. Print was already under a threat even before the pandemic.”

Speaking about the life of print, he said, “I don't think print is dead, rather it has a strong position. If print is able to capitalise on its strengths right now, for example, do something to enhance its authenticity and credibility, then I think it has a huge role to play.”

Srivastava said that after the pandemic, the print spends have tilted a little towards the non-metros as compared to the metros. “The metros haven't really come back as strong and that is reflected in the lower readership there. It is slowly coming back. But we see it coming back strongly in the smaller cities due to the vernaculars.”

He said print spends have not changed much as they largely use it for tactical advertising. “Its need obviously still remains, especially in Q2, Q3 and Q4.”

However, print spends of Maruti Suzuki declined much more than the overall spend. While their total media spends for 2020-2021 declined by 24%, the print spends declined by 35%. Digital reaped the benefits of this decline. While print’s share in total ad spends declined by 5% this year, digital’s share increased by 2%.

Speaking on what makes print a preferred destination for advertisers, Srivastava spoke of print’s credibility apart from its potential to grab attention.

“Print is more trustworthy and credible as a medium. And although it is less personalised, I think it is more attention-grabbing. If I hear about an earthquake I will go to my news app to find out more. At that time my entire interest is to find out about the earthquake and I may not notice an ad. However, when I read the newspaper, I'm just flipping through it and I don't know what news is there in it. So I look at every page intently and ads with good pictures will attract my attention. So print has more potential to grab attention than digital,” he said.

Jayant Mathew

Meanwhile, on the newspaper front, the rising ad revenue and circulation bring back the hope of better times. Jayant Mathew, Executive Editor, Malayala Manorama, said, “When Covid started, there were a lot of issues because of the lockdown. Though we had no distribution issues in Kerala, advertising went off the roof because the economy had come to a standstill. After that, it slowly started coming back and in the latter half of the year, things started picking up again. Since then every month, there has been an increase in advertising.”

Harrish Bhatia

Harrish Bhatia, President, Sales, and Marketing, Dainik Bhaskar Corp, said, “Indian language newspapers are marching ahead as a most effective media vehicle with trustworthy and credible news content to the masses. Our circulation and advertising are back to almost pre-Covid levels. We are very bullish on the future of Indian language newspapers with the Indian economy recovering fast, especially in tier II and III towns of India and beyond.”

Speaking about the future of the medium, Mathew said that its credibility factor will help it get back on its feet soon. “We are quite confident that things will improve. It has always been a credible medium and that has not changed. We have a very strict journalistic style. Every word that we publish goes through a strict journalistic process. The veracity of print is unbeatable,” he said.

Bhatia also stressed the credibility factor. “The credibility and trustworthiness quotient of newspapers has emerged as a major plus point, particularly in a fake news environment. The editorial strength of newspapers is being appreciated by people. According to a July 2020 EY survey, newspapers are the most credible source of news and information. The September 2020 report from media insights and consulting company Ormax Media found print to be the “most credible” media vehicle for news. This is one of the main reasons why advertisers flocked to print in a big way in the pandemic and beyond,” he said.

Dainik Bhaskar has reached almost 85-90% of the pre-Covid circulation levels and with local advertising recovering fully, their advertisement revenues have seen consistent improvement month on month. With the ad volume coming back, the pagination has also been witnessing continuous improvement. Currently, Bhaskar has almost 21 pages.

Another issue newspapers face is the changed habits of their readers. With print editions of newspapers becoming unavailable during the pandemic, many readers took to epapers and digital editions. Many readers have got used to it now and have not returned to the print editions.

However, Bhatia said, “Due to a different lifestyle in smaller towns, tier II and III cities, wherein residents have adequate time in the morning, and they look for credible hyperlocal news content with deep analysis, the print newspaper is considered as a way of life.”

Nagpal expressed the same view and said, “I don't think that news is something that can be consumed like entertainment, especially if you're looking for authentic information. The format of the message, in which it comes, has to be more relevant and effective. So you can't rely on news in a digital form and there is nothing better than print today.”

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