Years of non-stop growth and expansion in print newspapers in India are about to come to an end. If the industry does not develop more compelling digital offers now, many titles will shrink to irrelevance, close down, or lose what independence they have.

As publishers gather in Gurugram to hear about subjects like “turning points in newspaper technology since 1970” at the 27th annual WAN-IFRA India conference September 18 and 19, organised by the World Association of Newspapers and co-sponsored by the Indian Newspaper Society, the move to a digital, mobile, and platform-dominated media environment continues apace.

During the two days of the conference, another estimated 400,000-plus Indians (about equivalent to the daily readership of the Deccan Chronicle) will come online for the first time as the mobile price war makes smartphones and data affordable for more and more people across the country.

English-language print papers have been the first to feel the full force of the accelerating move to digital. Readership may still be inching upwards, but in their 2019 Media and Entertainment Report, the accounting and professional services firm KPMG expects circulation revenues to fall for the first time in years. Advertising – the main source of revenue – is stagnant, expected to grow just 1.5% (in an overall advertising market projected to grow by 13.9%).

With audiences embracing digital, and advertisers reconsidering print, how long before it stops making business sense to sell newspapers for a few rupees – less than the cost of production and distribution?

Many pressures

Increases in newsprint prices, the depreciation of the rupee and the government’s new customs duty on newsprint all add more pressure. But the fundamental shift is this: in India, as in everywhere else, everyone with access seem to generally prefer digital, mobile, and platform media to print.

This preference is most pronounced among the young.

When we at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism surveyed English-speaking Indians with internet access earlier this year, 38% of those over 35 identified online media as their main source of news, compared to 27% who identified print.

Among those under 35 years, 56% identified online as their main source and just 16% print – easily overtaken by the 28% who identified social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and/or YouTube as their main source of news.

Reaching those already over 35 may be lucrative for years to come, but reaching those under 35 is the key to Indian newspaper’s future. They make up two-thirds of India’s population, and they will have to be reached online first. A well-known and trusted newspaper brand can help with this. But print won’t be the medium to reach them.

Some Indian newspapers are already investing aggressively in their digital operations to do exactly this, and a few titles have built very significant reach and audience engagement across their own website and apps as well as across various social channels.

Poorly designed offerings

But many are lagging, offering poorly designed websites bloated advertisements, countless third-party trackers and full of clickbait and shovel-ware. This will not be enough to succeed in the increasingly intense competition for Indians’ attention online, where expectations are defined by the experience of using cutting-edge apps, mobile optimised websites, and popular social media.

And it is increasingly urgent that Indian newspapers find their place in this digital media environment. While print is still profitable (and still expected to grow for Hindi and regional language titles, at least for another few years), this could change quickly.

Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

KPMG says it expect print advertising revenues to remain roughly stable the coming years, even as the overall market continues to grow. But consider the case of China – from 2012 to 2016, as mobile internet access spread rapidly, print newspaper advertising declined by 75% in just four years, even as the economy (and the overall advertising market) continued to grow.

Some media changes are revolutionary, not evolutionary, and the pace can take incumbents by surprise. Print is still the second-largest advertising medium in India, but is likely to be overtaken by digital in 2021.

While newspapers dominate print media, accounting for 96% of the sector, they will not dominate digital.

Changing ad market

Today, industry observers suggest that Google and Facebook together account for an estimated 70%-80% of India’s digital advertising (some of it shared with publishers through various revenue-sharing arrangements) – leaving everybody else, including digital-born sites, newspaper sites, broadcaster sites, and more, competing for the rest.

A few major newspapers that have built national reach and massive audience engagement will still be able to generate significant advertising revenues online. But most newspapers cannot compete with the scale, price, and targeting offered by the big platform companies.

There are more than 100,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India, and most of them are based in large part on selling local print advertising. But with programmatic advertising online, “local isn’t valuable anymore”, as one advertising professional put it to the Economist, “anyone can sell local”.

Faced with intense competition from much, much bigger platform companies with more users, more data, more different products and services, and sophisticated targeting and technology, newspapers elsewhere are increasingly aggressively differentiating themselves and relying on digital subscriptions and reader revenues – but very few Indian newspapers have dared to test how much people actually want to pay for their digital journalism, and many have no distinct editorial identity apart from their history and their regional origin.

Today, the pressures that come with the move to digital are felt particularly keenly by English-language newspapers. But they are not alone. As KPMG notes, “With the availability of affordable smartphones and data, the industry believes that Hindi and regional will begin the inevitable transition to digital soon.”

That is why it is important that Indian newspapers figure out their digital future now. Not just for their owners and employees, but for Indian society and for India’s democracy.

Pillar of democracy

Despite their many imperfections, at their best, Indian newspapers still play an important role in providing information about public affairs, holding power to account and fostering debate on the issues of the day.

To be able to that in the future too, they will need to develop more compelling digital offers and (smaller) organisations that can be sustained by their online businesses. For every day that passes, another 200,000 Indians go online for the first time. Many will get the impression that newspapers are print products for old people and terrible websites offering a bad user experience and tonnes of intrusive advertising. This cannot go on indefinitely.

The alternative to a sustainable digital future is, at best, newspapers that shrivel up, are reduced to irrelevance or close down. At worst, it is newspapers that lose what independence they have and become mere instruments of power, reliant on government advertising or proprietors’ propping them up.

Finding this future will require less focus on turning points in newspaper technology since 1970, and more focus on what editorially and economically robust independent journalism looks like in a digital media environment, a digital media environment that is not a some distant future, but the future we live in now.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of a series of studies of news and media in India, including most recently the India Digital News Report.