To look at the recovery of Indian print media, let’s first look at the pandemic and the economic recovery. In most of July and August 2020, we saw a gradual removal of the drastic nation-wide lockdown initiated on 24 March to gain time on the Covid-19 pandemic. On 7 September, the Delhi Metro will begin limited operations with suitable precautions – perhaps the boldest experiment in the New Delhi NCR since the epidemic.
We haven’t been able to level the pandemic’s upward curve. Keep in mind that the Covid-19 cases increase daily by more than 83,000 in India, the highest daily rate in the world, and now exceed 4 million. Of these 4 million cases, almost one million are still not recovered, and statistically, 70,000 have already died because of the virus. The daily death count is over 1,000. Many are not alarmed by these numbers, especially when comparing them to the toll of traffic deaths or death from tuberculosis or farmers’ suicides.
For many sectors of the economy, such as aviation, hospitality, exhibitions, conventions, real estate, organized retail, and printed news media, the pandemic, and the ensuing lockdown is a death knell. And the un-lockdown with its lack of stimulus implies a condition from which they are unlikely to recover for a long time, if ever.
Financial print media does better than general news media
While the newspapers’ pagination has returned to anywhere from 10 to 20 pages on most days in July and August, circulation remains stuck at low levels, especially in the big cities. There is anecdotal information about readers having given up printed newspapers totally and other stories of homebound software engineers reading printed papers for the first time. While web traffic has increased, digital monetization has not.
Anecdotally, one has observed that the financial dailies have recovered their pagination better in the past two months than the general news dailies. The Business Standard has done exceptionally well in these months, often exceeding the English national dailies’ pagination. On many days it has surpassed 24 pages while some of the other financial dailies remained anemic. The Financial Express has also done well, reaching 32 pages occasionally, while its sister mainstream English daily could only muster 20 pages.
The financial dailies that have thickened themselves have found a sweet spot rate wise for the statutory display ads. These often running to multiple pages for a single company reporting on company earnings and announcements. (Ad rates throughout the industry have crashed, but there is no getting away from the statutory need to publish in print, financial display ads, and government ads.)
Indian news media – facts versus anecdotes
However, suppose one looks for evidence-based on hard facts. In that case, one has to look at the three print news media organizations listed on the stock exchange and compelled to publish their quarterly financials – HT Media, DB Group, and Jagran Prakashan. Compared to the same quarter of the previous financial year, the Q1 (April, May, June) sales of HT Media were down by 71%; of Jagran Prakashan 67.3%; and DB Group 64.5%.
Further published evidence comes from raw material consumption, which was at an all-time low in Q1 and which continues to be low. Jagran Prakashan reported its Q1 consumption of raw materials at Rs. 59.72 crore compared to Q1 2019, reportedly at Rs. 175.64 crores. This represents a decrease in raw material consumption (which we presume is mainly newsprint but would also likely include offset plates and ink) of 65.99%.
We have spoken to several news publishers, and while some are optimistic about improving circulation to some extent and ads to a greater extent, there is consensus that the numbers at the end of the financial year will not come back to even 80 or 90% of the previous year. Even if the pandemic subsides and the economy revives, there is no certainty for the print news media industry.
Given that there may be a holiday season bump in advertising in Q3 and the pandemic could subside in Q4 when we look at newsprint consumption that was already depressed coming into this year, we are looking at 50% of the consumption compared to a year ago. Revenues may recover to 55% or 60% of the last year across the industry. Although some will do better, many will do worse. In other words, the back of the envelope calculation says we are looking at a loss of Rs. 18,000 crore (US$ 2.5 billion) of revenues in the print news media in the country this year.
This article has been slightly edited for readability on 6 September 2020, no numbers or cited information has been changed.