The death of print is exaggerated
The Year of Covid hit economies hard, and none more so than the media business which depends mainly on advertising. With sales down and many businesses going belly-up, the media’s main source of revenue dried up as well.
When the lockdown went into effect on 24 March, most legacy media in Nepal stopped their print editions. Nepali Times and Himal Khabarpatrika were one of the first to stop printing in early March, and went fully digital. National broadsheets like Nagarik, Kantipur, Kathmandu Post and The Himalayan Times also halted hardcopies, and terminated their other magazines.
Among the broadsheets, only Naya Patrika and Annapurna Post continued to print much slimmer versions of their papers, mainly surviving on government notices.
However, within ten days Nepal’s largest-circulation newspaper Kantipur resumed printing after it found out that it was losing market share. “We panicked prematurely, and pausing print production was a near-fatal decision,” admits Mahesh Swar, Assistant General Manager at Kantipur Media Group. “We did lose some confidence of our readers, but we have won most of it back. Resuming print was the best decision we made.”
Although it was a question of visibility in the market and a presence in the corridors of power in Singha Darbar, media as a business has struggled to survive in the past ten months as Nepal’s economy flatlined during the March-July lockdown. The prognosis for 2021 is looking only slightly better.
A handful of digital-only portals with lower overheads rode out the crisis, but even they had to cut costs as new sites diluted online readership. Print media found it difficult to get existing companies to switch advertising to their online editions. While page views of their digital editions hit the roof, revenue crashed.
Back in April, Shiva Gaunle of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) told this paper that the resumption of hardcopy was prompted by competition, and the fear of losing a paper’s footprint.
“It is true digital media has even more reach during the lockdown, but the publishers seem to have decided that not having a printed newspaper has reduced their clout,” Gaunle says. “In that respect, print is still king.”
A survey earlier this year by Sharecast Initiative showed that only 7% of a nationwide sample regularly read print media, while the proportion of people who got their information from online media had grown, but only to 16% by October.
“It has been a challenging year for publishers, but they should keep in mind that the readership has not decreased. It's just that the news sources have shifted to the digital platform,” says Madhu Acharya of Sharecast. He adds that the real reason there are not more readers of print is because publishers have not invested in efficient nationwide distribution. “Most respondents in our survey said they would read newspapers if they could buy them easily.”
Journalist Namrata Sharma believes that older people prefer a physical newspaper because they are in the habit of reading them with their morning cup of tea. “Newspapers are just much easier to read, the letters and pictures are bigger and they do not have to squint into phones,” she says.
The Sharecast survey shows that the readership of news portals is not much higher, and most people with smartphones use the internet for entertainment, to connect to family and friends and to watch or share video content. Some 80% of respondents in the survey are on Facebook, with the total number of Nepalis with the app at nearly 9 million. YouTube and TikTok are spreading rapidly as well. Three years ago, only 1% used YouTube, that has grown to 57% in 2019.
Acharya says print readership can grow if newspapers and magazines are more readily available to subscribers and in news-stands because of greater literacy levels. Print’s advantage is its shelf-life, and the size of images, which has an edge over a mobile phone screen.
“Print newspapers are not going to die because it is something physical that stays with you, there are things you can do with design and use of space on the page that is much more powerful than looking at a small screen,” says Amar Gurung, CEO at Himalmedia, which is resuming the print edition of Nepali Times every Friday from 1 January.
Even ad agencies feel that print is a more credible source of information for the public, but they say that legacy media has to re-invent itself to be more appealing to advertisers and readers.
"Print publications have a more loyal readership, and they perceive them as more credible than online," says Ujaya Shakya of Outreach Nepal, and author of Brandsutra.
He adds that print readers do not usually multitask when they read a magazine or newspaper, making them more receptive to ads in those publications.
However, Shakya says the penetration of digital media is growing faster, and it will gain momentum when it is integrated with print, tv or radio.
"The biggest challenge for marketers now is the attention span of the digital audience," Shakya adds. "How many times will they click on the banner ad while browsing social media or a site? That is the key question."
The print media as it existed 10 years ago is dead. But the content and role of newspapers have changed. Ironically, what appears to have saved print is the proliferation of digital portals, where both news and advertisement tend to be drowned out by the cacophony. To stand out from the crowd, advertisers now prefer a printed paper page.
“Print media still helps to create certain level of credibility in communications. With excess noise in digital, and its unregulated content, many people are not sure how much they can trust it. Print provides trust,” says Punam Singh of the Golchha Group which is the distributor of Bajaj motorcycles.
It may be a question of time before print is trending again, just as people get tired of digital sound and vinyl record shops are becoming fashionable. Physical newspapers are tactile, their influence is less ephemeral than digital, much like e-books never really took off as people preferred to turn physical pages. The sale of printed books worldwide doubled last year.
“A newspaper in your hand is much more real than digital words on a monitor. There is more trust and credibility in a physical paper in this age of fake news,” says Amar Gurung. “Readers of print also tend to read longer articles and are less distracted, whereas online readers prefer shorter items or videos.”
This may be the reason why despite the growth of digital readers, many advertisers in Nepal still prefer ads in print. Indeed, across the world there is a return to print advertising by companies who are turned off by the over-saturation of online, and people disabling ads because they feel pursued by algorithms.
“Traditional media's major source of revenue has been ads. But now, we have to think out of the box to generate revenues from other sources as well,” says Gurung.
To be sure, there are caveats to print. The content and production values have to be of extremely high quality, there has to be visibility and efficient distribution that makes the media brand stand out. In the end it will be the advertisers who have the last word.
Says Prasun Timilsina of Karyala Advertising Inc., “For advertisers, it mostly depends on the audience. While products for youth are usually on digital media, it still makes sense to advertise in newspapers because they are tactile and there is greater retention of content that people see in print. A newspaper is also shared by the entire family, as opposed to digital media which is individual.”