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Will ‘print’ survive online onslaught?
The Indian Newspaper Society (INS) celebrated its 75th year on 27 February. President Pranab Mukherjee was the chief guest. Ravindra Kumar, President-INS, has written a lucid story of the INS in the book titled, Threescore and Fifteen.

In its long years, INS has largely been headed by publishers, owner-proprietors and managers. Kumar is an award winning journalist and the editor and managing director of the Statesman, which was the prime mover in the formation of the Society. For the first 17 years, the Society functioned from the stately Statesman building at Connaught Place. Thus it was appropriate that the head of Statesman should preside over the Society on its platinum jubilee year.

Kumar says that the INS history was written within seven days to meet the pre-determined date for releasing it at the 75th year function. The narration is lucid and covers the evolution of the print medium, closely inter-twined with the evolution of the Indian polity with its highs and lows.  Kumar describes the several high points along with the struggles and challenges encountered as also the rich contribution of INS to the orderly growth of the newspaper and advertising professions.

It was not the best of times for setting up the Indian and Eastern Newspaper Society to represent the interests of newspapers in the Akand Bharat pre partition, Burma and Ceylon. The Second World War brought about a lot of problems. Needed newsprint and printing machinery had to be imported. Supplies from Europe were disrupted. The war years were usefully spent in ensuring newsprint supplies, recognition for advertising agents to ensure regularity in payment of advertising accounts as also the formation of a newspaper liaison committee. The Society successfully represented to the government on rates of depreciation on newspaper plant and machinery (fixed at 10 per cent) and to exempt newsprint and newspapers from the operation of increased railway freight charges.

Steady finances from the start…

INS evolved as an extremely profitable industrial association. Kumar refers to the impressive growth in numbers:  from 14 newspapers in 1939, membership has increased to 1026 by March 2013. Growth of advertising agencies accredited to INS increased from 14 to 875 in this period. At the end of 2012, of the 1026 member papers, Hindi newspapers accounted for 336, English 257, Tamil 72, Marathi 66 and Malayalam 42. Circulation-wise, large newspapers with circulation of above 75,000 were 345, medium (25,000-75,000) 403 and small newspapers 278. Dailies constituted 655.

Kumar refers to the finances stable right from the beginning: “they showed a (substantial) surplus of Rs 2051 and 14 annas and assets of Rs 21,401 at the end of December 1940 to a surplus of Rs 47.79 lakh and assets of Rs 373.60 crore at the end of March 2013. A massive INS building, the second after Delhi’s, is nearing completion at Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla complex further boosting the market value.

The Society was instrumental in setting up the  news agency, the Press Trust of India, with the cooperative efforts of member publications. IENS richly contributed to the evolution of the Advertising Agencies Association of India and the setting up of the Audit Bureau of Circulation. The fight against the price page schedule, introduced as an aftermath of the severe shortage of newsprint, is claimed among the major achievements.

 

Adversarial relationship

The adversarial relationship with the administration surfaces time and again. The 50 years of channelising newsprint imports through STC, the anachronism of a wage board for newspaper employees, the arbitrariness of government advertising and draconian attempts to amend the Press and Registration of Books Act have been described in detail by Kumar.

 

Attempts to curtail freedom….

“The trouble with the establishment traditionally has been to view the press as a beast that needs to be tamed and not as an organism that would grow – in size and quality...The weight of regulation – characterised by words such as quota, rate structure and control – has itself played a role in creating aberrations,” says Kumar.

Kumar deals with the frequent forays of legislative overreach and cites the case of the Press and Registration of Books Act that dates back to the colonial year of 1867: “it has at its soul a colonial piece of legislation… The draft of the proposed legislation, to put it mildly, is appalling and is repugnant to the idea of liberalism…. Even the British did not ever dream of bringing content within the purview of legislation whose intent is to facilitate registration of newspapers and periodicals. The draft bill proposed the grant of sweeping powers to the executive to cancel licences of publication.”

Kumar expresses concern over the threat to the freedom of the press: “neither Nehru nor any of his successors was truly enamoured of a ‘completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom’ and that while the words they used were often praiseworthy, the actions they took were short-sighted and sometimes inimical to the cause of the freedom. Sadly, neither Nehru’s bureaucrats nor his successors (or indeed the bureaucrats) quite imbibed the liberal mindset that is a pre-requisite for a free and vibrant press. This in essence remains the greatest challenge to the press in India,” concludes Kumar.

 

When small was left behind in the race

IE has been a member of INS since 1975. The experience of small newspapers that constitute over a fourth of the total members is pretty disappointing.  

For the greater portion of the Society’s evolution, it seems to have existed  of, by and for large newspapers. Only in recent years periodicals, of course from powerful and prosperous publishing houses like India Today, have even adorned the post of President. The omnibus committee of over 50 members provides poor representation for small newspapers that number 278. The cost of commuting to Delhi from distant centres and stay come in the way of small papers contesting for committee membership. The ‘inclusive’ slogan much bandied about, should extend to the newspaper sector too. Look at a couple of issues of concern to the small newspapers:

DAVP advertisements: large and medium newspapers skim off the cream of government advertisements. Remember the splash of such advertisements in the Times of India or The Hindu prior to the announcement of elections, by any and every department many of whose existence was not even known to the average reader?

Several of the PSUs, LIC, banks… are not aware of the DAVP’s norms and regulations for release of advertisements for small newspapers/magazines with circulation less than 25,000, of the minimum allocation of 15 per cent of their advertisement budgets.

There is a more glaring inequity- an irrational fixation of rate by DAVP. The rate was based on circulation, ie. if a large publication with 10,00,000 copies was paid Rs 4000 per col.cm., small publications with a circulation of 10,000 copies should be paid Rs 40 per col.cm.  Printing cost for thousand copies is many times higher than that for The Hindu or Times of India, which print copies in lakhs. The cost of imported glazed newsprint is higher than that for a bulk purchaser like The Hindu or Times of India.

 

The pain of dealing with RNI

Registered newspapers require an eligibility certificate to import newsprint. Publications, especially those located far away from New Delhi, suffer serious delays in obtaining this simple certificate. The reasons:

1.    There are about 120,000 registered titles.  Of these, around 80,000 are live. This means, by the stipulated deadline, RNI was supposed to receive around 80,000 annual statements each filed with 12 issues, thus adding up to nearly a million mailed items.

2.    The skeletal staff at RNI are unable to handle the million copies received as a torrent in thousands of mail bags, bunched by end May. A past Registrar admitted that severe shortage of staff precluded even opening the thousands of mail bags! Most of RNI’s unmanageable work pressure is due to their manual work system even in this era of computers and systems.

Even though offices of RNI are located in state capitals/regional metros, they are under-utilised. It should be far easier for these to receive the returns filed by papers of that state/region, check the items filed, verify the enclosures and issue acknowledgements. Such a system will ensure enough work at the regional centres and reduce the burden on the head office.

Simple filing through computers should be insisted upon to eliminate wastages and delays.

Most importantly, in the present regime of free imports, is there a need for an eligibility certificate? Why not transfer newsprint import to OGL and leave the owners to certify consumption ? This is more valid for glazed newsprint not produced within the country and used by magazines. Anyway the prices are so high there is little scope for abuse.

    When other industry associations come together to work for creating indigenous capacity for their essential raw materials like steel or aluminium, despite their stature and high profits, prosperous large newspapers have not bothered to work for the creation of capacity for production of newsprint within the country. Newsprint prices globally have been following the business cycle with regularity: of high demand leading to high prices and high profitability resulting in creation of large capacity followed by competition for custom and fall in prices leading to cuts in production and thence to higher prices.

 

Poor record in building newsprint capacity

Newspapers plead Modi-like, for minimum government and maximum governance and a lot of leeway for private enterprise. Is it beyond them to set up on cooperative basis a large capacity newsprint mill? IE has been pointing to the copious availability of bamboo and other woods in north eastern states like Mizoram that would lend for large capacity newsprint mills. This can be moved out through the nearby port at Myanmar to different parts of India; after all newsprint is procured from Europe and far away Canada. With their clout, large newspapers can win special concessions and mobilise the resources needed of a couple of thousand crores of rupees. They can also use their influence with large sugar producing states like U.P and Maharashtra to set up bagasse-based newsprint mills. S Viswanathan of Seshasayee Group demonstrated the feasibility and profitability of this technology providing the sugar mills coal fired boilers to save bagasse.  Tamil Nadu Newsprint and Papers Ltd (TNPL) has established bagasse-based newsprint of quality and profitability. With paper prices zooming, TNPL finds it more profitable to produce these varieties of printing papers. The owners of large newspapers like Times of India have vast interest in other industries. Later day newspaper barons have also been powerful politicians who have diversified interests including in power and minerals. Surely, setting up a newsprint facility is within the grasp of these barons.

 

Raddi economics…

The price war introduced by Times of India in the 1990s also made a mockery of certifying circulation. At the height of the war between TOI and Hindustan Times (HT), the two giants reduced the cover price to a rupee in Delhi.  Both protected their sales agents by offering a flat commission of 50p. With the bulging size of around 40 pages plus, the raddi value shot up to 58p. So even small time street vendors indented for hundreds of copies as they could earn comfortable margin by selling as raddi than to the reader! Both TOI and HT showed zooming sales. How could ABC or any other audit firm certify sales on genuine readership?

Predatory pricing is unfair not just to less endowed large newspapers but even more to periodicals and small publications. An average edition of Times of India with 32 pages of standard size means 128 pages in roughly A4 size and is priced Rs 3 in Chennai (it was just a rupee in Delhi for a while). With much higher quality paper that costs nearly double that of standard newsprint, IE for the 52 page issue could be priced only at Rs 20 and it lacks the felicity of TOI for compensating this low price with hefty advertisement rate. Small ceased to be beautiful post-1991!

After the recent error of The Indian Readership Survey 2013, a large number of newspapers withdrew from IRS. The survey findings were charged with inaccuracies. For long in Tamil Nadu, Daily Thanthi claimed a readership of a crore that tested statistical credibility. The surveys are backed by detailed documentation. Companies and regions (like Tamil Nadu), good at such documentation, could claim sometimes artificially boosted readership.

When the results are adverse to a number of large newspapers, as happened recently, there is strong protest and even boycott. It is so difficult to have a common denominator for the largely disparate members of the society.

 

Threat of decline of the print medium

The going shouldn’t be easy for the print medium. Already the once prosperous newspapers like Indian Express and Statesman are losing out to the predatory policies of TOI. With the unwritten understanding on non-aggression over territorial hegemony broken by TOI in the 1990s, even The Hindu is getting hit. For over a century the paper was rigid in its advertising policy offering a hefty rigid rate for the southern editions. Today, it offers a tariff even for local advertisements for pockets of Chennai metro like Adyar or Anna Nagar.

With the rapid expansion of the television and more recently the Internet, India would also face the threat of stagnation and even decay of the print medium perhaps for the 2020s. With its bulging assets, INS may thrive with more real estate acquisitions in other metros that may even cross Rs 1000 crore in value parcelled over to prosperous publications. But it will be increasingly difficult to ensure the prosperity of all its members.

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