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Why Indian language papers weathered the Covid storm better than English dailies

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In the past few months, Indian language newspapers have taken the lead with growth in circulation, readership and advertising revenues

Like most other industries, print media also saw a tumultuous year battling not just the pandemic-induced crisis but also changes in trends internally. Traditionally divided into two segments viz. English newspapers and Indian language newspapers, the print media business has been largely dominated by the former in terms of advertising revenue. However, in the past few months, Indian language newspapers have taken the lead with growth in circulation, readership and advertising volumes.

“The reach of Indian language newspapers is widespread while that of English language dailies is only restricted to urban areas which were worst hit by the lockdown. The English language newspapers took a fair amount of beating when it comes to circulation. This is where the Indian language publications took a lead. Hardly any of the language publications went off the shelf even in the early lockdown phases. Those that did, stabilized fast as well,” said I Venkat, Director, Eenadu Group.

In the second week of April itself, a consortium of newspapers, including the likes of Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Eenadu, Hindustan, Patrika Group, Amar Ujala, Daily Thanthi, Sakshi, Dinamalar, Deccan Herald, Hindustan Times and Divya Bhaskar, came together to issue a joint statement announcing the stabilization of distribution across India. As much as 75-90% of the base number of February was stabilized.

While some regional newspapers saw a hike in TR (total readership) some witnessed growth in AIR (average issue readership). Incidentally, some popular brands from across the country like Amar Ujala, Lokmat, Daily Thanthi and Bartaman saw a growth in both TR and AIR.

Talking of changes, Girish Agarwal, Promoter Director- Dainik Bhaskar Group, said, “Historically, English newspapers, targeted mainly at metros and large cities, have been getting a large part of the advertising pie on the basis of the reach of these papers as well as the audiences that they cater to – largely well-off middle-class families that are at the centre of the consumption economy. Gradually, however, this has changed with Tier-II and Tier-III cities not only catching up, but also surpassing metros in terms of growth.”

“This shift has further widened during the past 10 months. While the entire newspaper industry was affected, both in terms of circulation and advertising revenues, it is the Tier-II and Tier-III, that have not only bounced back earlier, but have been consistently posting better economic numbers than the rest of the country. The non-metro markets, where Indian language players have their presence, have witnessed much faster recovery. Their circulation is back to almost 85-90 per cent. Also, the advertising revenue touched almost 90 per cent during festival season. The entire print industry has witnessed the paradigm shift and Indian language newspapers are now the biggest and dominant force in the entire print industry,” he added.

Players down south also echo the same thought. For most markets, players that have taken care of reinstating circulation were the clear winner.

“In the metros, most apartments didn’t allow newspapers, but we ran an awareness drive through Kerala and made sure people understood how safe the entire process of newspaper production and distribution was. Our strong field presence helped us convince people and we were back in business. The advertisers also came back in the second half of the year and we are hoping we’d see a better first half in 2021,” said MV Shreyams Kumar, Managing Director, Mathrubhumi.

Change in consumption patterns also led to change in trends.

“The 90-day-plus coronavirus-induced lockdown has completely changed the news consumption habit of people. In metros, a large majority of newspaper readers have shifted to online portals, mobile applications, and television channels for their daily dose of news and current affairs. Most of the attention in terms of consumption and ad spend trends has shifted to Tier II, III and IV markets or ‘Bharat’,” said an expert.

According to Venkat as well, the English news readers have other media vehicles for their daily news consumption and their dependency on newspapers has thus reduced. “While digital is growing in Indian languages too, it is not as fast as English which gives the language papers an edge in the present times,” he said.

In terms of ad volumes, as per TAM AdEx numbers, compared to 2019, ad volumes in English languages publications decreased by 36% in 2020.

Two-wheelers led the Indian language publications and properties/real estate topped the list for English dailies when it came to ad volumes during 2020.

The content mix in Indian language dailies has also upped the game for them.

“Indian language newspapers contain a strong mix of national, local, and hyper-local content. This has helped advertisers create bespoke content depending on the region they wish to serve,” Agarwal said.

“Also, Indian population has been consistently growing mostly in smaller towns. Literacy level and economy indicators are improving in this part of India. As per latest IRS and ABC data, huge headroom is available for readership and circulation growth in this region. People have enough time of more than two hours in morning to read newspapers since commuting time is very less and offices mostly start from 10-10.30 am. Economy is expanding in this part of India, as 90% of India’s population resides here. Hence, all Indian language newspapers have a bright future in terms of readership and circulation opportunity besides attracting advertising dollar,” he added.

Talking of advertisers, SBS Biotech was the top advertiser in Indian language dailies with 5% ad volume share, followed by Hero Motocorp, Maruti Suzuki India, Hindustan Unilever and Honda Motorcycle & Scooter India.

For English Newspapers, Maruti Suzuki India was the top advertiser with 2% ad volume share, followed by LIC of India, Apple Computer India, Kent Ro System and Amazon Online India.

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Tasmayee Laha Roy

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