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Newspapers in India: “The Publishers Need to Invest in Human Resources”

Kerstin DeckerCopyright: Kerstin Decker
Newspapers in Bangalore: India is the world’s largest newspaper market (Photo: Kerstin Decker)

26 May 2012

Crisis? What crisis? While the printed press is fighting for its life in Europe and America, newspapers in India are registering record sales. K Subrahmanya is the editor-in-chief of the Deccan Herald in Bangalore. In the interview he explains why the news in print is doing so well on the subcontinent.

How do the ten million people here in the city of Bangalore get their news?

K Subrahmanya: We have more than 30 major newspapers here, twelve in English, eight in the state language of Kannada, and others in Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam. There are also about ten regional television stations, ten radio stations, and of course all of the national and very many international TV channels. As for radio, only the state broadcaster All India Radio is permitted to broadcast news programmes, private radio stations have to limit themselves to music and entertainment. Newspapers enjoy a high credibility rating of almost 100 percent, the television channels only 40 percent.

The newspapers here are practically free, they cost between 1.50 and 5.50 rupees (2 to 9 cents). Why don’t they demand cost-covering prices?

It’s a 25-year-old history. Traditionally, the newspapers in India were always limited to one city. In the mid-1980s they began to spread nationwide, thus beginning the competition. The Times of India was the first to launch a price offensive in 1985-86 in Delhi; it became cheaper than all of the other newspapers in the city. Then, of course, the others joined in. In the 1990s, the prices of newspapers dropped everywhere rather than rising. The population grew, the circulation grew, the prices dropped, and so the people began reading two newspapers, one for local news, and one for business news. This model has been going on until now. The better educated the people are, the more newspapers are sold. So, circulation keeps growing.

But this price model cannot continue to work for decades? Why doesn’t anyone raise their prices?

They should have doubled, particularly because the printing costs are very high, but none of the publishers raises them. If they did, our newspapers would be worse off than those in Europe. If I sold the newspaper for eight or ten rupees, circulation would immediately drop, say from 200,000 to 150,000, and the competition would get the business. That is why no one dares to raise the newspaper prices. We fill the gap with advertisements, but only the big papers with high circulations can do that.

Copyright: Kerstin Decker
Editor-in-chief Subrahmanya: “No one dares to raise the prices.” (Photo: Kerstin Decker)
In Europe and America, the printed media are losing both many of the advertisers and also younger readers to the Internet, which offers information for free. India, by contrast, is the biggest newspaper market in the world...

That’s true; the crisis hasn’t arrived here yet. In Bangalore maybe 50 percent of the population can afford a laptop, in rural areas perhaps only 10 percent. Since demand in rural areas is very low it is also very difficult to gain access to the Internet there. But, I think we will go the same way in ten to fifteen years. At the Deccan Herald we have an online department staffed presently with seven people; we want to expand it to ten people. That is an investment in the future. Unfortunately we do not have our own TV channel, which would make sense as a business model: an English-language newspaper, a newspaper in Kannada, a website, as well as TV, and if possible even radio.

The publisher of the “Deccan Herald” also prints the newspaper “Prajavani” in Kannada, the official language of the state of Karnataka. In what way do the two papers differ from one another and how do they profit from one another?

The Deccan Herald has a circulation of 200,000, Prajavani sells 550,000 copies. Both editorial offices are in the same building. About 200 journalists work for the Deccan Herald, while Prajavani has 100 regular employees and 200 part-time journalists. The Deccan Herald has a large network outside of the state of Karnataka, while Prajavani has very strong local roots. They can therefore exchange information. But we make far more advertising business with the Deccan Herald because the customers that read an English newspaper draw the greatest advertising potential.

What do you think will be the role of a journalist in the printed press in ten or fifteen years?

Journalists are important and always will be important, even if one or the other newspaper should not survive, because they are the ones who supply the news. Websites and TV channels can update their news 24 hours a day. A great deal has changed in this respect for the newspapers, as well. The copy deadline used to be at eight PM, today we can update until one AM. But, newspapers are not used as the first source of information; the people don’t want to read what they’ve already heard. Newspapers can supply details and background information that the others don’t offer. They have to print stories that everyone wants to read. Everyone publishes was the German chancellor Merkel says. But, the people would like to know what her husband thinks of his wife’s policies. You can ask him; he has an opinion of his own. You needn’t blow it up into a sensation, but tell the story with an interesting twist. Then, the TV channels and websites will take up your stories and ask you how you got them.

But how should journalists produce interesting and exclusive stories if jobs are being cut to save costs and they have to see how they can fill up many white pages every day?

To tell different stories you need more journalists. It is easy to go to the government and come back with three articles, but I don’t want all this nonsense. The publishers don’t need to invest millions of dollars in websites in the hopes they will someday profit from them. They need to invest in human resources, so that their newspaper stands out from the others. Print interesting stories, then you won’t need to speak about the downfall of the newspaper! That’s my opinion.

Kerstin Decker held the interview.

K Subrahmanya is 52 years old and has worked as a journalist since 1991. His topics are politics, diplomacy, and defense. He has travelled to 35 countries as a political correspondent, frequently accompanied the Indian prime minister, and reported on the war in Afghanistan. He holds a Master’s degree in political science. Before coming to journalism, he worked in Delhi at an institute for defense strategy and analysis.
The journalist Kerstin Decker from the Leipziger Volkszeitung is reporting from Bangalore as part of the project Close-Up in which ten journalists from Germany and India swap their workplaces and learn about the working routine of the local desk of their host newspaper.
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