Thursday, May 05, 2016

Trends in online journalism

The concept of online journalism is yet to find ground in India, so there is not consolidated trend. There are thousands of portals, trying different things. However, there is no revenue model in place. Compared to print ad spend in online news portals is still miniscule.

So there is a disruption happening, which will be difficult to predict, especially when this disruption is starting from bottom up. Few individuals come together and start an online portal and vie for attention. Examples are Scroll, The Wire, The Citizen, Raiot, India Resists. There are many, many more, all of which have dedicated readers. But the numbers are less. There is no single winner. However, they seem to be doing better than online versions of established media houses.

Two observable trends:

1. Micro-sites. Today, you find very difficult to find readers who would visit your site at random and click on a link at random. Today, a reader knows what he wants. He is looking for special information. He doesn’t want to visit your homepage, or get distracted. That will happen, only when he likes your content. Today, you cannot dazzle a reader with promises. You have to deliver. So, we have lot of site do offer specialised content, from movies, to finances to whatnot. A dedicated site, with specialised content on a particular segment, is a trend which will see a rise.

2. Crowd-sourced content: Another trend is sites with crowd-sourced content. Narcissism is the trend today, and the online news portals give this narcissism intellectual validity. It is also great for traffic, as the author will force his family, friends read it, and also promote it in social media. Sites with crowd-sourced content, like Youth Ki Awaz, are doing rather well.

Friday, April 29, 2016

I have been a fan of Easterine Kire’s When the River Sleeps well before it won the 2015 Hindu Literature Prize. The accomplished storytelling and the minimalist charm really impressed me. For me, this book does for Nagaland what Chinua Achebe did for Nigeria. What’s more, I have a signed copy.

Recently, I did an email interview with Kire for Sakal Times. I had just few short questions. She, however, answered in detail and with such brilliance! I could not fit the word count in the newspaper interview, and I did not want to waste these important observations.

Finally, I approached the web outlet Raiot, and they graciously accepted to run the complete interview.


Q: With When the River Sleeps receiving mainstream recognition, more readers will try and read your earlier works. What do you think your readers should expect?
A: In the body of my work, new readers will find a chronological presentation of the main aspects of Angami Naga life from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. I have written novels and novellas that cover the major points of oral history in Naga society. My sources were oral narrators, and I have also done library research of the areas that my books deal with. New readers will meet characters that are probably like themselves and in like situations, or like their mothers’ generation, struggling to get educated so they can get a job; they will meet characters that fall in love, (both in and out of wartime) and lose their loved ones and learn to live life after loss. I call these ‘peoplestories’ because they are the stories of real people. New readers will meet these characters in all my works. They will also see glimpses of the spirit world which is so much a part of the life of my community.

Read the complete interview at Raiot: Challenging the Consensus

Thursday, April 14, 2016

লুইতত ভোটোঙাই ওলাল শিহু

After tumultuous elections, and the earthquake yesterday, along with occasional storms, the Bihu really arrives with the Bordoisila this year. Wishing you all a very happy New Year 1423. Stay safe, and please don’t kill each other. 

To go with the mood, here is a Bihu song from Bhupen Hazarika. It’s not a happy one, but a timely warning. 

For my friends who do not understand the language, following is a rather bad translation.

Like the river seal, the Bihu arrives every year
The river seal appears in Luit again, on this day of Bihu, Rongali Bihu
Like bunches of Burmese grapes, everywhere crowds gather in a rush
Come enjoy the fun, the fun, come and see
In society’s field, which player has made whom the target
All these people from the community, everywhere crowds gather in a rush
Come enjoy the fun, the fun, come and see
On one side, they kick Rongmon-Bhadia, on the other they kick you
Najitora, they kick you; they turn the joyous Bihu joyless
Even hunger refuses to satiate, Najitora, even hunger refuses
Oh, singing Bihu for two days you cry for a year, swallowing spit of sadness
All these people from the community, everywhere crowds gather in a rush
Come enjoy the fun, the fun, come and see
…Searching for Bihu clothes I run everywhere, even the yarns are expensive
Govindai Ram…
Cleaning the courtyards of our great fathers, I broke my back
Govindai Ram…
Even I ended up pawning my pair of bulls during last Bihu
Govindai Ram…
Someone detonates some bomb in some ocean
The ashes fall elsewhere
Some warmonger will now scorch
The Earth with a dozen bombs
Don’t tell me, sister, don’t tell me about the bombs
Say, when there’s a war, what will we eat, what will we sing
Only the people will die; without peace, we are all baits in fishhooks
Even the tune of our dearest Bihu will disappear
All these people from the community, everywhere crowds gather in a rush
Come enjoy the fun, the fun, come and see
You cannot stop the ebbing tide, grandmother, the embankment breaks
Oh, grandmother, who can stop time when people take it forward..

The Legacy of Saadat Hasan Manto in Radio

Toba Tek Singh is a district in the Punjab province of Pakistan. You may not know the geography trivia, but you have heard about a certain Bishan Singh and his obsession with his ancestral village. Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, who was born in Ludhiana and who migrated to Lahore after the Partition, published the story Toba Tek Singh in 1995, and such is the power of his biting satire that it remains relevant until today.

You may not know your Urdu, but we have read the story, in Hindi, or in English or in other regional writings. Or, you may have seen it in one of the numerous stage productions. Toba Tek Singh was among the plays selected at this year’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav, organised by the National School of Drama, Delhi. Meanwhile, one of the most popular stage adaptations of Manto remains Manto, Ismat Hazir Hain based on five of his stories, put together by actors Naseeruddin Shah, Ratna Pathak Shah and Heeba Shah. His story Kali Salwar became a Hindi film in 2002.

Or, if you are a radio buff, chances are you have heard the story in Radio Mirchi, in a programme called ‘Ek Purani Kahani with RJ Sayema’.

And why not? For most part of his life, the legendary writer worked in All India Radio, Bombay, and wrote five series of radio plays. In the interim period, he also worked in the film industry.

Manto’s Legacy

This is the legacy of Manto. More than 65 years have passed since he wrote his stories. Yet, the truths of his vision of individuals at odds with society still ring true, perhaps more today than ever.

Admirers argue that the great writer remains underappreciated. This is true to a certain extent, yet, compared to other writers of the Partition, say, for example, Quratulain Haider (whose Aag Ka Darya remains a landmark creation), Manto has been successful to remain relevant. The reason is his modernity. Writers like Wilde Chekhov and Gorky may have inspired him, but in his stories, we see the traces of Western modernism, especially in his later works, which came to play as an immediate aftershock of WWII. This resulted in forgoing to grand themes and adopting a critical gaze inside. Thus, Manto’s best stories are those which feature characters from the margins, the denizens of Mumbai chawls, prostitutes, lunatics, daily wageworkers, and other people caught in the crosshairs of the politics of class, caste and religion. He was infamously but unsuccessfully tried for obscenity six times, which only proves the claim to his modernity, and put him in the same league with DH Lawrence.

Here lies the appeal of Manto. As history completes a circle and we find ourselves in a similar position Manto delineates in his stories, we find solace in his voice of reason, his biting satire, and his matter-of-fact directness. He once wrote, “If you find my stories dirty, the society you are living in is dirty. With my stories, I only expose the truth.”

Manto in FM

To carry on this legacy, the Delhi station of Radio Mirchi, a private FM radio station, recently aired a series of Manto’s stories, in a programme titled ‘Ek Purani Kahani with RJ Sayema’. The programme aired such classic stories as Thanda Gosht, Aulaad, Do Quamein, Baarish, Aankhein, and Khol Do, Kali Shalwar, Bu, Tithwal Ka Kutta, among others, where Sayema, the radio jockey, reads out one story during one session. This is not difficult; Manto’s short stories are usually short and the reading time usually does not go beyond half an hour.

The programme is still on air. RJ Sayema reads a new story each week, on Friday at 11 pm. The recording is then repeated on Saturday and on Monday. The recordings are also available on the Radio Mirchi website.

This is not all. To highlight Manto’s relevance, on her official Facebook page, RJ Sayema also urged the listeners/readers to list at least three bitter truths about society which existed then and which continues to exist today.

This comes with a reward too – the Manto Dastavez, a set of five beautiful books by Saadat Hasan Manto, published by Rajkamal Prakashan.

The programme is an initiative by RJ Sayema, and clearly, it is a rare lineup in a FM radio station, which mostly relies on popular music from Bollywood to attract young listeners.

Manto in Hindi

Saadat Hasan Manto wrote in Urdu. Now his works are in public domain, as it has been more than 60 years since he passed on. Thus, any publisher can issue his works. The works published by Rajkamal is a Hindi translation of the original Urdu. The publisher has the translation rights. The Manto Dastavez have been edited by Balraj Menra and Sharad Dutt. Translation here mostly means conversation of the Urdu original into Devanagari script.

While critics agree that a definitive edition of Manto’s work is not available yet, as far as Hindi is concerned, the complete works of Manto published by Rajkamal Prakashan is, by and large, reliable, though not whole accurate. (from Black Margin: Stories, edited by Muhammad Umar Memon, Katha/OUP, 2001.)

Manto’s stories in Hindi are also available from Rajpal & Sons, namely, Toba Tek Singh Aur Anya Kahaniyaan issued in 2014.

There have been numerous translations of Manto in English. By far the most popular one is by Aatish Taseer, Manto: Selected Stories, published by Random House India. Other translations include Bombay Stories, by Maat Reeck and Aftab Ahmed, Random House India; Bitter Fruit, Penguin India; Mottled Dawn: Fifty Sketches and Stories of Partition, Penguin India, among other. The most recent translation is My Name Is Radha: The Essential Manto, by Muhammad Umar Memon, Penguin India.

M is for Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (11 May 1912-18 January 1955), who migrated from Bombay to Lahore during the Partition, wrote 22 collections of short stories, one novel, five series of radio plays, three collections of essays, and two collections of personal sketches.

At 21, he met the scholar Abdul Bari Alig, who encouraged him to find his true talents and read Russian and French authors. He then translated Victor Hugo’s The Last Day of a Condemned Man to Urdu and soon after joined the editorial staff of Masawat, a daily published from Ludhiana.

He joined Aligarh Muslim University in February 1934. He got in touch with the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (IPWA), and soon took up writing stories.

In 1941, he started writing for the Urdu Service of All India Radio. In the next eighteen months, he published four collections of radio plays, Aao, Manto Ke Drame, Janaze and Teen Auraten.

He published his short story collection Dhuan, then Manto Ke Afsane and his first collection of topical essays, Manto ke Mazamin, and Afsane aur Dramey.

Like most Urdu writers of his generation, he joined the Bombay film industry 1942 and wrote screenplays of films like Aatth Din, Chal Chal Re Naujawan and Mirza Ghalib.

He stayed in Mumbai until moving to Pakistan in January 1948.

For a detailed look at Manto’s life refer to Manto Nama: The Life of Saadat Hasan Manto by Jagdish Chander Wadhawan, Roli Books, 1998.

(A version of the story first appeared in PrintWeek India.)

Friday, April 08, 2016

A History of Bodo Literature

Chinese Poetry

Gulzar: A Pocket Full of Poems

OUP India going to school

The university press, after 103 years in India, has found a way to leverage digital technologies to add value to print resources. Ranjan Kaul, managing director, Oxford University Press India, explains to Dibyajyoti Sarma

How is the Oxford University Press (OUP) India, with a legacy of 103 years in the country, reinventing itself within the changing publishing scenarios? The answer is simple: By exploring new markets, such as adult ELT and assessments, while embracing technology.

“We have been in all fields of learning, from pre-primary school material to academic research,” says Ranjan Kaul, managing director, Oxford University Press India. “Besides, OUP is known for its dictionaries.”

While continuing to strengthen these programmes, OUP has now identified adult English language teaching (ELT) as a new area of publishing.

According to Kaul, the idea is to meet the aspirations of the English language learners, people who may or may not have had an English-medium education but who are now struggling to get jobs, because of their deficiencies in English. It also includes professionals, who may have the technical skills, but lack in the proficiency of the language.

For this, OUP has introduced comprehensive self-learning materials, including dictionaries and grammar books, using the bilingual medium. “English remains the language of business in India. The market in the segment is growing and we saw a requirement,” says Kaul.

He adds that bilingual content enables an aspirant who has completed his education in a local language to teach himself English, via his own language.

Kaul shows us some bilingual books, in Bangla and Hindi. He says there are plans to publish these bilingual materials in 12 languages.

This Indian aspiration to learn English post conventional education, however, is not new. There are training institutes, good or bad, in every corner of the country, which claim to teach aspirants English in a matter of days. Apart from these rudimentary set-ups in small towns, there are also organisations in the metro cities, which offer similar services of teaching English to adult, educated aspirants.

OUP is aware of the market dynamics and over the years it has aligned itself with the reality of the situation. “Apart from publishing self-learning materials focusing on the aspiration of the learner, we are also approaching the language training schools. We are talking to them for a possible partnership,” says Kaul, adding, “The problem is most of these institutions do not have even qualified teachers. So, we will offer to train the teachers, besides providing them the material and the teaching tools. If they can do a good job, we can look at the probability of endorsing them.”

“So, there is another market, training English language teachers, we are interested in. We have the resources and the knowhow,” adds Kaul. He says OUP India on an annual basis conducts 800-1,000 teacher training workshops on all subjects, including ELT.”

The use of bilingual content to teach English as a second language may sound surprising to many, but, as Kaul explains, OUP India has had recent success with its bilingual dictionaries. One of OUP’s mainstays over the years has been its dictionaries. In the recent years, with the availability of dictionaries in laptops and mobiles, the sale of English dictionaries is on the decline globally. By contrast, the bilingual dictionaries that OUP India publishes in all major Indian languages are doing rather well. This opened up the door for the new venture. “Besides, we publish a lot of English language teaching material in the UK, for the second language adult learning market. Those have been tried and tested, and they deliver results,” Kaul adds.

Teaching and Learning

Another new area that OUP is exploring is providing teaching aids in the school segment, with a focus on digital. “We are preparing ourselves for digital,” says Kaul. “In India, we are 103 years old. About 70% of our turnover comes from the school segment. We are familiar with the schools market, what the opportunities are, what the schools are looking for. In the recent years, a lot of technology companies came in with some kind of digital solution. Most of them were far from satisfactory. So, some schools approached us, asking if we wanted to do it.”

The major problem as regards to primary school education is that there is no appropriate content and there is no standard. Kaul says in the last two-three years, OUP is providing print materials and other digital content as teaching aids, to support print, and to support teaching in the classroom. “Print material is still the focus, which digital content is being offered as an additional aid,” adds Kaul.

After the success with the teachers, the schools are now asking OUP India if they can provide digital content for the students as well, for devices. This, the company can, but according to Kaul, this digital content is not going to be a substitute for print, the actual books in the syllabus. “The materials we provide have additional interactivity, to enhance learning, as a learning aid,” says Kaul.

In this area, the other important aspect OUP India is working on is student evaluation in a classroom setting. “We are looking at measuring learning outcomes. Are the marks a teacher gives at the end of the class adequate to measure performance? So, we are also developing assessments, which can measure skills,” Kaul says.

The project is called Oxford Achiever, an online assessment module which students follow concurrent with the regular classroom teaching and learning. It has been running successfully in several schools in Hong Kong, and OUP India has customised it to Indian requirement.

“With this, we will be able to assess classroom teaching, and it is diagnostic. Based on the students’ response, we identify the areas of weakness and offer suggestions how the students can improve their abilities in a particular subject. The report goes to the teachers as well, so the teacher is also in the loop,” Kaul explains.

“We did a pilot in seven-eight schools, out of which five said they wanted to continue this. This is encouraging and we will be launching the complete assessment solution in a few months,” he says, adding that the focus is not necessarily on elite city schools, but also B-category schools and schools in tier-two, and -three cities.

Making Digital Work for Print

We come to the same old question that we keep asking the print leaders: Is the digital media making print obsolete? Kaul answers in negative. He says he does not see digital technology replacing print in the near future. He gives the example of the UK, where print is still relevant. In the content of school education, he gives the example of the international schools, where books are still being used despite the prevalence of all sorts of digital teaching-learning tools.

“Digital can certainly aid and enhance the teaching-learning process.” Kaul explains. “Over the years, the learning methods have changed and children have become visual learners. It is a positive in terms of pedagogy. So, teachers now can use not only the blackboard, but also a digital screen to explain a difficult concept.”

He gives the example of the heart. It is difficult to explain the workings of a heart through a picture. Now, a teacher can show the students how the heart works with the help of an animation.

“We are now using an integrated print and digital workflow,” says Kaul, “Now, when we conceive a course, we decide what will go in digital and what will go in print. Everything is conceptualised at the initial stage.”

OUP uses a technology called Ariel, wherein if a student scans a picture in his printed book with a smartphone, it leads him to an animated version of the picture on the phone. “We are linking a lot of this kind of learning objects to print. So, it is adding value to print,” he says.


OUP India

Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford and has played a key role in the University's work since its first published work in 1586. It is the largest and most successful university press in the world with offices in fifty countries and publishes more than 6,000 new resources a year across the academic and educational spectrum.

From its first locally published book in 1912, OUP India it has expanded its output to include a wide range of educational and academic resources - from scholarly works and higher education textbooks to school courses, bilingual dictionaries, and digital resources for teaching-learning.

In India, the company has three broad divisions – school education, higher education and global academic. As the names imply, they cater to these specific markets.

Fighting Piracy

Piracy is a major issue among publishers. Kaul says even OUP India faces the threats of piracy, but not to the extent the publishers of best-selling trade books, where piracy is more rampant. “Piracy in the institutional framework is limited in India, as booksellers in India do not keep pirated books in their stores” says Kaul.

He adds that more than India, piracy is far more rampant in countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan. “In India, the situation is not that bad, as police are now more aware of the copyright laws, and publishers themselves can take legal action,” he concludes.

About Ranjan Kaul

Ranjan Kaul, managing director, Oxford University Press, India, has over three decades of publishing experience and has held senior editorial and management positions in leading publishing companies in India. A post-graduate in English Literature from the University of Delhi, he also holds an Engineering degree from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur. Ranjan writes and paints in his spare time and is the author of Through the Forest, Darkly, a work of fiction published by Hachette.


Rapid fire with Ranjan Kaul

What is the best thing you like about OUP?
Its undying commitment to education, innovation and quality.

What you like most about Indian publishing industry?
Its commitment to education and literacy.

What according to you is lacking in the industry?
Greater awareness of piracy and copyright issues.

Your predications for the next five years?
The future certainly looks very bright

OUP in numbers
Number of books (units) published so far: 23 million
Number of employees: Approximately 750
Number of printers associated with OUP India: 10 to 12

(This feature was first published in PrintWeek India, 2015.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Last Witch Hunter

It’s an adequate film in the rather unimaginative genre where a righteous Christian warrior must hunt down an evil witch to save humanity, or parts of it. Nicolas Cage and Ron Pearlman did one such film some years back. Then Jeff Bridges did one called ‘Seventh Son’.

Here, Vin Diesel plays an undead soldier since the time of the Vikings, I guess, who must settle one final score with the Witch Queen he helped burn a long time ago, where else, in modern day New York. You know how it ends. There are fights and nice visuals. The new-age computer graphics technology has made all this rather too easy.

The movie looks good, but it terms of narrative, there is not much. The script tries, but it cannot do much as it sticks to the genre demands. There are some nice touches, like the generation of Dolans serving the undead hero, like the witches we roam among humans, like the blind magician with the butterflies, in the shape of an underutilised Isaach De Bankole. It’s really a crime to hire Bankole in a movie and not give him anything substantial to do. If you don’t believe me, ask Claire Denis?

Diesel is adequate. After all those Fast and Furious movies, you don’t really mind him anymore. After Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, Michael Caine now play a variation of the butler role in his sleep. He has tremendous screen empathy and it works well here. What do you say about Elijah Wood? After The Lord of the Rings, he seems to have lost his way? And, why they always cast him in bumbling villainous roles?

In the end, you wonder, with so much cash at their disposal, why could not they find a more exciting story to tell. But you are grateful that at least this one is not as terrible as Seventh Son.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Time for Top Newspaper Publishers to Accept the Reality

Newspapers in India are not dying and digital is not taking away their share of the pie. What ails the industry, however, is how the top publishers refuse to acknowledge the ensuing downward journey by rejecting the readership survey numbers. Vanita Kohli-Khandekar explains to Dibyajyoti Sarma why this is a worrying trend

As we discuss the importance of the Wan-Ifra expo and annual conference, to bring together the Indian newspaper industry on one platform, we inevitably move to the question why Indian newspaper publishers project such a grim picture of the reality. The fact is Indian newspapers, whether English or regional languages, are doing well, and there is no practical threat to their existence. Yet, industry leaders tend to paint a doomsday picture, as if the industry in India is on the verge of collapse.

The digital media is the usual culprit. The argument is that many more people have stopped reading printed newspapers as they have migrated to digital media, where they get all the information they need within the touchscreen of their smartphones. Again, television has always been a competition.

The proponents of this theory come armed with data, most from the US and some cases, Europe, where, they claim, the change has already happened. Recently, an online news portal ran a story how the future of the newspaper in the world is at the hands of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, who recently acquired The Washington Post (The same person who is credited with disrupting the traditional retail ecosystem.).

Again, the 7 August 2015 issue of Frontline carries a cover story on Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, who says, “…In my experience of it, you can be a better journalist in the digital world. Or, you can see it as the danger of being left behind if you didn’t do it. And there’s so much to learn and there will be so much competition in the digital world. So, certainly, the more I spent time editing, the more I felt I had to really get inside the digital world. If I’m going to be wrong about all this and if print is going to be here for a few years it’s fine, because we know how to do that.”

The sum and substance of this is that while the ground reality in India is different, we seem to be seeing the industry from the prism of an outside model. Is it possible to have a model exclusively for India, with data and figures that show that exact reality of the Indian newspaper industry?

Newspapers as Aspiration Objects

Of course, there is an ‘Indian model’, with data from agencies like Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) and Indian Readership Survey (IRS). There are also other audits and surveys. It is just that people get excited by news from the US and they react to it, explains Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, media specialist and the author of the book, The Indian Media Business, which has sold over 10,000 copies.

According to Kohli-Khandekar, India is a very heterogeneous and very voluminous market and any model has to build that into itself.

“There are two factors that have kept India in a totally different growth trajectory,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “First is the concept of home delivery, which does not exist in most developed markets. In the US, for example, you have to go to a newsstand and buy a newspaper. The moment you start getting news online, you stop going to the newsstand.” This, of course, is not the case in India. We get the paper every morning, delivered to our doorstep.

The second factor is the fact that in India newspapers are objects of aspiration. “In India, there is a respect for the written word,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “A country which is just over 60% literate, in India, being able to read is itself a sign of achievement.” She illustrates this with an example of an uneducated working class man, and how he would react when he saw his children read a newspaper.

The long and short of this is newspapers will survive in India; it doesn’t matter what happens in the West. Literacy, electricity and penetration of media are some of the benchmarks through which we can gauge the market, says Kohli-Khandekar. “I once did a matrix, which looked at these factors – how literacy, or electricity can affect media penetration, and we found that the media that best works for India is the radio, which is cheap and does not need electricity, so to say,” she says. “Now, however, mobile phones have come on top as the media with biggest penetration, about 80 to 90%.”

In short, newspapers, with its written words and pictures have phenomenal possibilities. “My bet is television and newspapers in India are not going to die in a long, long time,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “We can argue in what format it would survive, but print will remain.”

Dealing with Digital

Why then is this kolaveri about digital onslaught? In the Frontline interview, Rusbridger explains, “Print is wonderful for some things. But the world we are in now is going to be very, very different, in which every aspect of life, not just media, is affected by digital. And it seems to me it’s inescapable. And so, to try and sort of cling on to this old world and pretend that somehow journalism is going to be exempt from this revolution seems to me not a wise way to think about the future.”

Rusbridger is right of course. Kohli-Khandekar argues that while newspaper publishers are screaming hoarse about digital, going online, they have actually done precious little to exploit the medium.

“Talking about newspapers, what are they actually doing in the digital space?” Ask Kohli-Khandekar. Apart from a handful of them, most players have not yet scratched the surface. Just putting up news stories online is not enough. In a dynamic platform like online media, there needs to be a constant engagement, which is certainly lacking in most online news portals. “It’s a long process,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “The newspapers should have started experimenting with the digital space some 10 years ago. For example, television is doing much better in digital than newspapers.”

The potential is enormous. For example, when online, looking for news, a newspaper reader usually gravitates towards the website of the said newspaper. A cursory look at Facebook reveals that while The Times of India page has 7,211,475 ‘likes’, the web-only news portal Firstpost has only 637,747 ‘likes’.

“I think the newspaper publishers have not yet realised how big this could become and how they should approach the space much more aggressively. For example, how many of the players play up their statistics for their websites, the way they do for their newspapers. They are getting traffic, but they are not marketing it enough,” she says.

There are too much data in the digital space. In this context, it is important to figure out how a newspaper publisher is going to build its brand. Newspapers like The Guardian and The Economist are the examples how old brands reinvented themselves in the digital space. And, they started more than 10 years back. These sites are independent entities, not a digital version of the printed product. This is the key, and Indian media houses are yet to find the way.

Kohli-Khandekar agrees that there are operational issues. After all, the Indian newspaper industry is used to work in a certain way. “And also, there are issues of focus. If you are getting the chunk of your revenue from one product, which is print, you will definitely focus on that,” she says.

Thus, we return to the earlier issue. Printed newspapers are doing well. This is one of the reasons why despite the fact that while all newspaper houses have online presence they have done nothing much to exploit the potential of the digital space.

Monetising an online product may be another issue. India, as yet, has not been able to create a market for paid digital content.

The most important reason, however, is the ad revenue. While brands may be flirting with the digital space, newspapers continue to bag more than 40% of total ad spending by the brands. This is the biggest after television, and the numbers are actually very good. On the other hand, digital accounts for more or less 10% of the total ad spending.

So, there is no crisis. Kohli-Khandekar says the Indian newspaper industry is a mature market. While there has been sustained growth in the past few years, sooner or later, the market is going to plateau. In this scenario, a new newspaper may find it hard to sustain, as the market leaders will try all their might to maintain their top position.

Number Games

This brings us to the issues of transparency in the market. Among the major players, both in English and in the regional languages, who is the No 1? What are the circulation figures? What are the readership figures?

The situation, at best, is despairing. Kohli-Khandekar says the market leaders find it very hard to deal with falling numbers. Everyone wants growth. But if it does not happen, they try to suppress the results. This is a trend, she says, will have adverse affect on the industry, as it stops the decision-makers from seeing the way the industry is mutating in the last couple of years.

“There is no respect for what the metrics mean,” says Kohli-Khandekar. “Take for example the circulation figures published by ABC. Everyone jumps in and out of the figures. If the figures are good, they will publicise it, if not, they will ignore it.”

Kohli-Khandekar says big newspaper houses have ignored the last few readership surveys. They are still using the old figures as currency to attract advertisers. This is simply because big players refuse to accept even a mild change in their figures.

She argues that the metrics, the surveys and audits are not there to serve the interest of the market leaders, but to reveal the state of the market. This is something that is not happening the way it should. She says even when surveys are authentic and foolproof, major players seem to reject them simply because the numbers do not reveal their expectations. She gives the example of IRS (Indian Readership Survey) 2013. “It was well done. It was statistically sound, the samplings were better, and the security was better so that nobody could fudge the data. Yet, the newspaper houses refused to accept the results citing statistical anomalies,” she says. Then there was an audit, which cleared the survey. Yet, newspaper publishers refused to accept it.

“I think they are not accepting the results because the data is now starting to show stagnation in the large categories,” argues Kohli-Khandekar.

Within this scenario, media agencies and ad agencies have come to play an important role. “Around 80% of the total newspaper revenue comes from ads and you are saying that you not going to accept the currency on which advertisers work? How can this work?” asks Kohli-Khandekar, adding, “It is dangerous when an industry refuses to accept the ground realities. Instead of focusing on the numbers, the newspaper houses should focus on the challenges.”

While the leaders refuse to wake up to the reality, the smaller newspapers want the data. They are the challengers. They want the IRS numbers to see how they are doing. Kohli-Khandekar says the big players’ refusal to back robust metrics is pulling the industry down. “This is the real crisis, not the internet,” she adds.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar Explains/

The Tragedy of Metrics

Most publishers who are part of the Media Research Users Council (MRUC), which releases readership numbers, have been up in arms over a re-hauled readership survey that was published two years ago. The whole issue was settled through an audit, revalidation and finally an increase in sample size by the MRUC in April 2015.

However, most publishers are still sulking about losing their ranking in the annual ranking. Meanwhile, advertisers - after missing the metrics for two years - are moving on to TV, digital and other media. Much of the trouble, say industry experts inside the system, stems from publishers’ ego and some short-term tactical thinking. The last acceptable readership survey had shown stagnation in English print. The downward journey that print media in the rest of the world is going through, had begun in the profitable, growing Indian market. In the absence of current figures, advertisers use historical numbers. By stalling the readership survey, the top publishers can maintain the status quo on rankings.

Saving the Readership Survey

The readership growth of English print had slowed down to less than 1% in IRS 2012. Some top newspapers showed marginal declines. In the absence of current data, the advertisers, base spends on historical data, so the established ranking holds. However, smaller publishers, beyond the top 2-3 ranks, need readership to negotiate for better ad rates. The whole thing is a tussle between big and small publishers.

That is ironical. The MRUC was set up in 1994 to shake off the dominance of large papers in the erstwhile National Readership Survey. Now, it is more representative of all users - big and small publishers, advertisers and agencies. In 2009, it joined hands with the Audit Bureau of Circulations to overhaul the survey. The new IRS was released in January 2014. It showed that total readership was down from 353 million to 281 million people (restated to 301 million) and many biggies were displaced in the ranking. That is when all hell broke loose.

The Indian Newspaper Society denounced the survey. Dainik Bhaskar got a stay order on it. However, a 15-member revalidation committee cleared it. Using IRS 2013, along with one round of fieldwork from 2014, the MRUC released IRS 2014 this year. But, publishers still refuse to accept it. Their complaint? The data is dated, tamperable and the sample size is small.

Then the MRUC board decided to increase the sample from 235,000 to 300,000.

(Excerpted from the Business Standard, where Vanita Kohli-Khandekar publishes her columns.)

(This feature was first published in PrintWeek India.)