Monday, 19 April, 2010

Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. – A J Leibling

As I recall from a media debate in New Delhi a few years ago, Vinod Mehta, the editor of Outlook said, “Newspaper owners often have three ambitions: fame, power and wealth. However it is almost impossible for them to achieve all three – they must choose, and in my estimation at most they may achieve two out of these three ambitions.”

There is righteousness and there is self-righteousness in every newspaper industry. While in much of the world the emperor is now naked, in the world’s largest democracy with the second-largest daily circulation in the world, we still seem to be clinging to our fig leaves. The question is how long can we owner-publisher-editors survive? If we are to grow, to communicate to a new generation, and to write and create new things, surely we need new people, the best people for the job – professionals who are passionate and engaged in the concerns of the day. Why should we expect the new generation of writers or editors to only be concerned about our own passions? And do we not need to grow fast enough to give an opportunity to those in the family who wish to grow the business? Why will they join the business if we do not grow fast enough to use their talent and their hard won qualifications? Is the Columbia School of Journalism merely a finishing school for the sons and daughters of the Indian newspaper owners or a place to train our best young journalists?

Technology versus content
From Frederic Filloux: “Le Figaro’s new facilities are able to address several of its competitors’ printing needs. The most obvious is Le Monde whose printing plant is obsolete and costly to operate (too many people). The two papers now use the same page size (a ‘Berliner’ format), and are produced at a different time of the day. A perfect fit in theory. Mr. Morel [Francis Morel CEO of Le Figaro] denies vehemently having any intentions of harming Le Monde. But there is no need to be a Wharton scholar to see the two torpedoes Le Figaro is firing at its competitor: one is the better looking and cheaper ads, the other a more commercially potent printing plant. At least, ‘Le Fig’ might print the business paper Les Echos and perhaps one of the three free papers.

“But the real potential for Le Figaro’s online revenue lies in the readership duplication rate between print and web. Today, only 20% of the print readers also visit the website, this is quite low when compared to the 30% to 45% its competitors experience. This points to the paper’s generation problem: 42% of Le Figaro’s readers are 60 years-old and above, compared to 27% for the rest of the French press; naturally, the web is expected to rejuvenate its audience. Today, is the #1 newspaper site in France with more than 5 million unique visitors a month (OK, thanks to some questionable measurement tricks). Still, each time 10 web users are gained, this translates into 2 more print readers (along with 10-15 times more revenue per reader on paper side).”1

Marie Benilde writing recently in Le Monde Diplomatique quotes the assessment of a banker at the French National Conference in Strasbourg in 2006: “Journalists are now in the same situation as steel workers in 1970’s : they are destined to disappear, but they don’t know it.” Benilde cites the loss of 2,300 jobs in the French press last year, and about the financial performance of the press last year she adds, “Every national daily in France, apart from the sports daily, L’Equipe, has lost money.”2

The owners of the Indian news dailies are by and large not gamblers. Those who have made large investments in new technology are looking at a sure thing although it could take time. Nevertheless, to use their new and modern capabilities, they will need a huge growth in product and unfortunately they are thus far focussing mostly on their own product which will rarely if ever drive their presses 24/7. The new technology allows for better colour and more diverse offerings in the newspaper package and an integrated approach to new and cross media. The issue for the Indian news or media organisations is one of vision and content. Print is still growing as the most impactful part of the news package in this society but since the demographic is changing, for the news or media organisation of the future, the key issues are vision and imagination. Machinery and new plants can be bought – where will the content and engagement come from?

--Naresh Khanna

1. From A Case Study: Le Figaro’s Advertising Gamble
September 20, 2009 - 11:08 am | Edited by Frédéric Filloux
2. The end of newspapers Le Monde Diplomatique Marie Benilde, English in Hard News, April 2010, New Delhi

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