Aakar Patel | If print media loses ground, democracy is threatened too

A newspaper earlier this year had reported that print media advertising had grown to Rs. 16,000 crores in 2021, rising from Rs. 12,000 crores in 2020. This year, it would be Rs. 18,000 crores, the report said, with newspapers and magazines getting a share of 20 per cent of the overall advertising market. This was also higher than the global share of five per cent, because elsewhere newspapers were dying. All of this is good news, but what the report did not say was that in 2022, print would get just as much advertising as it got in 2019. Given the inflation, this number was actually negative in real terms. The thing is that this trend has come upon us quite suddenly.

Newspapers and magazines got 53 per cent of all advertising as recently as 2005. In 2022, digital will get 45 per cent and television 40 per cent. Print and radio and outdoor will have to go after that remains, which is not very much.

This is not unique to India, of course. In the United States, print advertising has halved in just the last five years. It is a much larger market than India’s but even so total advertising fell from $20 billion (around Rs. 160,000 crores) in 2017 to half of that this year, having fallen each year in the interim. The price of newsprint, and the paper on which newspapers are printed, has meanwhile risen. This is important because it is the single largest component of cost for a newspaper, especially in India, where the reader only pays about a fifth of the value of the paper and 80 per cent is paid for by advertisers.

If you notice that your newspaper is thinner than it used to be, one reason is the rising cost of newsprint, and the second is the reduction in advertising to support the extra pages. The question is what is to be done and how, and also perhaps why.

The easiest answer to the first two is that if India’s economy shows strong growth over the next few years, newspapers and magazines should be fine for now. That is because the people selling consumer products and services will want to send more advertising their way. If it is the case that growth is weak, this money will not come to print and the long-term decline it has seen will continue.

This is actually a matter of great concern. Let us turn to why we need newspapers to do well. Those who understand how journalism happens know that the largest sets of reporters are all in print. To give you an example, my last job was in a Gujarati newspaper which had some 300 reporters. They were spread out across the state and its cities and had regular beats such as corporation, education, crime and so on. They would show up every day at these places and collect the latest news and information from them. They built contacts with the people associated with and being served by these government institutions. Many of them even have press rooms where print reporters gather and are given information.

This is not how television channels are structured. They do not require either the number of reporters that print has, or the kind of reporting print does. The TV channel’s staple is what is called the debate, and here it is outside experts and guests, including political leaders, who provide the content. To know what is happening in your local government school and hospital or the magistrate’s court, one has to turn to the newspaper, which is the only source.

It is true that some fine websites have come up that are doing journalism of a sort that was not done before. However, they are not structured like newspapers either, and don’t have the numbers to replicate them, particularly of reporters. If you do a census of journalists in India (or indeed South Asia), the majority will be in print and the majority will be reporters.

Now consider that along with advertising, even employment in the media has been declining. A report citing data from the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy said the total number of people employed in the media and publishing in India was a little over 10 lakhs in September 2016. By August 2021, this number was 2.3 lakhs. This is in line with trends that showed that in the same period, jobs in manufacturing had also halved.

The numbers will not be surprising to those working in the media who have seen colleagues go and publications shut down recently. The larger question is what this decline means for our democracy. Print reporting is the largest source of factual material on the government. It is not replaceable by another medium, even if the other medium were willing. TV and the rise of digital and social media will not and cannot replace print. Newspapers are like a public good, providing a service to society that only they can.

What happens to a democracy when the basic information about the performance of the government and the state of institutions declines to the point of vanishing? When citizens do not know what is going on in schools, hospitals, police stations and government offices, how do they hold the State to account?

These are the questions to consider when we examine the rapidity with which print is losing ground, first to TV as it did and now to digital.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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