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The elephant in the room

»An industry association of newspapers, held its annual conference in Bangalore recently. Over the last few years, the publishing industry gatherings like these have been focusing increasingly on the digital side of the business. This year, a question on many delegates mind was how the Web and the mobile would affect the print newspapers in India.

In the West, the rise of Internet led to an exodus of readers and advertisers, leading to a near collapse of the print newspapers and magazines. But in India nothing ever happens the way it occurs in the West; despite the growing connectivity and the traffic for news web sites, most newspapers expect their online and print businesses to coexist. Thanks to a growing population, the reader base is expanding and the print circulation is in no danger of shrinking overnight. The Net penetration among Indian language readers is still low. For those used to reading the news in print, the Web is perhaps not as good a substitute.

But many in the industry think that there is an elephant in the room and it is hard to say what it will do. A newspaper which released its android phone app a few months ago has seen a whopping three lakh downloads. Of course, there are other Indian news apps, which have registered over a million downloads. But that has happened over three or fours. But touching the three lakh figure in matter of months shows the extent of the connected base in India.

So, the next question: What would be the impact of three lakh readers reading your newspaper for free on the mobile? Nobody knows and opinions vary. The delegates from the concerned newspaper maintained that there was no impact either on the Web traffic or on print circulation. Catching up with the news updates on the mobile phone is an experience entirely different from probing it in print. But would the same logic apply to tablets? Reading a newspaper on a tablet is an experience, which comes close to reading it in print.

What works in the favour of Indian newspapers is they are given away practically for free, unlike in the West. Even today despite inflation and the rupee fall, a newspaper is among the cheapest products you can buy.  So, even if readers move to Web or mobiles to read news, they may still buy the printed paper by the sheer force of habit.

This gives a cushion for the Indian publishers to prepare for a soft landing. If the Net further expands rapidly and indeed turns disruptive, they can at least face the threat well prepared. This is a new medium for the publishing industry; if handled well, it can turn into a new opportunity.

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