A nice paper on state and issues facing Indian media by T. Ninan.
Why this title Dickensian age? Well it is based on Charles Dickens Tale of Two cities. Just like that famed book, Indian media also has two tales/narratives:
I must confess that the title for this lecture was thought up on the spur of the moment. Still, you might wonder which characters in Dickens’ novels we can see in the Indian media. I can readily say that many journalists see latter-day versions of Uncle Scrooge; publishers who want to run their empires on shoestring budgets. Publishers, in turn, will say we have our Oliver Twist journalists, who keep asking their employers for more—even when salaries are doubling every four or five years.
We have reporters who are Artful Dodgers, especially when it comes to deadlines. We have bankrupt TV moguls who, like Micawber, are forever hoping that something will turn up. And of course, many readers are like Pip, they had great expectations about the media but feel robbed and are disappointed. But when I fixed on the title, of a Dickensian Age for the Indian media, I had none of this in mind. My thought was the more predictable one, that this is a tale not of two cities but two narratives, competing narratives.
The two narratives are: First, the media has grown considerably with rising literacy and income levels. Second, its credibility is being tested severely. So there is both best of times and worst of times:
We have never had such a vast audience or readership, but our credibility has never been so tested. We have never seen such a flowering of TV channels and such a spreading footprint for newspaper titles, but the market is more consolidated than ever around the top few players. The quality of what we offer to our public has never been better, but that same public can see that the ethical foundations of our actions have plumbed new depths. The impact of the media on India’s public discourse has never been so instant and its reach so pervasive, but many ask whether that impact is for good or ill. It is unquestionably the best of times, and it is also, unfortunately, the worst of times.
Ninan begins discussing economics of media and throws up some amazing numbers.
Our newspapers have daily sales of one hundred million copies—second only to China in number. And since one newspaper copy is read by more than one person, the total readership is about 350 million. We have some twenty of the hundred largest selling newspaper titles.
Our television channels reach an even bigger audience, of over five hundred million people. The vast majority of them have access to cable and satellite TV, not just the state terrestrial broadcaster. And our population of Internet users has crossed one hundred million, and is set for rapid growth following the planned spread of broadband communication networks.
People typically spend about a half hour reading their daily newspaper, and about three times as much time watching TV. The average time spent on the Net is an hour. According to a serial entrepreneur who has launched a succession of TV channels and films, Indians now spend 12 percent of their disposable income on media and entertainment.
If the reach of the mass media has grown, so has the size of the business, to more than $10 billion, according to the author Vanita Kohli-Khandekar (who is also the source for some of the earlier statistics)—with TV being 60 percent of that total, and the rest print. The industry has also begun to emerge from the traditional pattern of family ownership and management, with the leading players listing on the stock exchanges. As one result, media businesses have attracted several hundred million dollars of investment every year.
Apart from rising incomes and literacy levels, other factors have also led to this media growth:
There are other factors too. Robin Jeffrey, the Australian academic, points to the importance of printing machines beginning to get manufactured in India. These cost a fraction of high-end machines from Germany, Switzerland or the U.S. They weren’t as good or as fast as MAN and Wifag and Goss. But the lower price tag made smaller print runs viable, and that allowed publications to open new print sites in the smaller towns. That achieved deeper market penetration, and also brought the news closer to home instead of from a distant metropolis.
The model typically is low-price/low-cost model:
It is such localization of reach and content that has helped the press fight back against the onslaught of television. Publishers have also dreamt up aggressive pricing strategies because, if you win the circulation game, you naturally win the advertising game as well. In a usually buoyant economy, this has worked like magic.
The low-price, low-cost strategy means that while India’s newspaper copy sales are the second largest in a country ranking, its press barely makes it to the top ten when it comes to the size of the business. The average Indian newspaper costs the reader six cents, and the average cable connection just three dollars a month. Advertising revenues per reader or viewer are similarly small, so that the total revenue per newspaper copy is about fifteen cents or less. For a business paper serving the high end of the market, the revenue per copy might max out at forty cents. So when I look at American newspapers that charge their readers two dollars a copy, and still manage to lose money, I wonder if we have the better business model, even if the big U.S. newspapers usually have the better journalism.
Despite the rise in overall newspaper titles, industry is fairly consolidated:
When the costs of starting a newspaper print site become small, you get a proliferation of print centers as regional titles look for national reach, and so we have a multiplication of choice. In my neck of the woods, this means no fewer than five financial newspapers, and four business TV channels, out of over a hundred news channels in all. But don’t get fooled by the ostensible proliferation, the market is for all practical purposes consolidated around one or at most two dominant players in each segment. Each regional language has just two or three dominant newspapers; in the case of English and Hindi, half a dozen in each language account for the bulk of the readership in a large and diverse market.
There is some interesting talk on how the government tried to get even with media after the coverage on recent corruption scams:
The counter-attack has been cleverer than the old-fashioned one of trying to impose censorship, imposed during the Emergency in the mid-1970s and abortively attempted in the late 1980s. The government has focused instead on squeezing the media as a business—based perhaps on the premise that most publishers value their profits more than the right to criticize the government. And so the home ministry ordered recently that government advertising be stopped to five newspapers in Kashmir that it described as anti-national. Some of the newspapers are the leading publications in the Valley. In places like Kashmir, where there isn’t much commercial advertising available, the withdrawal of government advertising could mean loss of viability. In a way, this is worse than censorship.
Then, a move was initiated to bring the media within the ambit of the very ombudsman that the media has campaigned for. When the Editors Guild protested that this would inevitably mean an assault on the journalistic freedom, the response was that only the business operations of media houses would come under the ombudsman’s scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the government has proposed a new regulatory regime for TV channels, with a graded system of penalties for channels that are seen as crossing the line. The penalties include – you guessed it – withdrawing government advertising, and even suspending the license to broadcast. The same theme has been taken up by the new chairman of the Press Council of India, which is a regulatory body for the press that is supposed to act through moral pressure. The new chairman wants the power to withdraw advertising, impose fines and stop publication.
He then talks about the test of credibility and how media can get out of it.
In the end, he ends with what Guha and others have been suggesting:
My closing thought is that the larger Indian experiment, of compressing centuries of development into mere decades, within the framework of a full-blooded democracy, is a magnificent one, and the privilege of chronicling the non-stop drama is perhaps unmatched. It would be tragic if we were to turn away from writing the first rough draft of such history in the making, and either wallow in our own imperfections or corrupt our mission.