The financial data of the Indian news media companies become increasingly difficult to analyze since only a few companies are publicly listed and feel compelled to file their results upholding governance norms. Many privately held news companies disclose their data late to the Registrar of Companies – many have not yet submitted their FY 2020-21 March-end numbers even in December 2021. Confounding the ability of most investors and industry observers to decipher the data are the increasingly complex holding company structures that incorporate separate companies for digital, TV, radio, and outdoor media.
The sternest lessons of the pandemic are resisted by the Indian news media, which believes itself to be in an inevitable long-term growth cycle since newspaper penetration never exceeded 10.9% of the total population of 1.37 billion. Combined newspaper circulation never reached even half of the top 21% of the population representing the predominant income-generating demographic of the country. Hence analysts always believed there was room for circulation growth in the long term while keeping in mind that there would have to be a multichannel mix of media offerings, and other shifts to better content quality and differentiation, more subscription revenue, a transition to digital subscriptions and even new products.
However, as we review the Indian news media industry for the third time in as many months and present the financial data for eight newspapers, we need to accept that we may never again reach a daily circulation of 150 million newspapers as the industry once claimed. It is unlikely that we will even reach 135 million – a more realistic highest combined circulation estimate achieved before the industry began plateauing four years ago.
The financial data presented in the tables below represent a sample of the newspaper and news media groups that have filed their annual data and exclude many leading privately-owned newsgroups whose data is not yet available on the ROC website as of 17 December 2021. It shows a decline of 37.4% in the combined standalone revenue of these eight newspapers, from Rs 14,786 crore to Rs 9,256 crore. The combined consolidated revenue of these entities declined slightly less, at 35.6%, from Rs 19,144 crore to Rs 11,694 crore.
The data suggests that their other media activities added some revenue and perhaps synergy, but undermined their current profitability. It is especially true in the case of Bennett Coleman, HT Media, and Jagran Prakashan. Thus the combined losses of the consolidated revenues of the eight news media entities have increased by 25 times (-2443%) to those of the previous financial year, while the standalone decline in profitability of these entities is only three times or (-67%).
Our sister research organization IppStar (www.ippstar.org), estimates that the erosion of profitability is to some extent alleviated by a 17% decrease in human resource costs and a 53% decline in raw material costs. While these may have shored up losses, the use of fewer raw materials is a strong indicator of an equivalent decline in advertising, pagination, and circulation.
The current FY 21-22 and the FY 22-23
While Crisil and some other agencies estimate that the Indian news media will bounce back in the current financial year, it cannot be to the extent they estimate which is anywhere from 70 to 75% of pre-Covid-19 levels. There have been signs that the October to December 2021 quarter has been relatively healthy, but January and February are usually the cool months for advertising, with March showing an uptick of using up the leftover budgets for the year.
Some newspapers are seeing the writing on the wall and see limited long-term upside in the digital transformation with serious paywalls and digital subscriptions. They do not see their way forward in content differentiation and increasing subscription revenues for print and digital. They cannot see profitability and growth simply by trimming costs.
Even if circulations and advertising come back further in the next quarters, publishers have openly voiced their fears of a raw material shortage with newsprint paper machines dismantled and turned into paperboard machines and the crisis in container availability. Apart from newsprint, the increasing costs of aluminum and oil have also pushed up the prices of offset plates and inks.
As the second pandemic year comes to an end and the industry’s recovery extends to another year of ambiguity, one can hazard that it will come back to 70 to 75% of pre-pandemic levels in FY 2022-23. New strains of the virus, continued challenges in raw materials (including chip shortages for automobiles and electronics), and stressed logistics, mean that the ambiguities of economic life will extend to the third pandemic year.