"Have you read the Hindi Business Standard or Economic Times?" a colleague asked me.
I replied in the negative, "These papers are not aimed at me."
Yeah, but I am an English brat. I don't pretend to be one, I am a bona-fide fourth (I think possibly even fifth) generation speaker of the mother tongue. My knowledge of Indian languages is dismal to say the least. I can work my way around Hindi and Bengali and I did pass Hindi in Class X (I got a 60 even, so there!) and managed to get through Delhi University's Hindi-B subsi at the very first attempt. OK, so the paper leak from a friendly area college did help immensely in passing, but I did take tuition to pass that exam.
But at least I'm being honest, Hindi papers have never been argeted at me and nor is the Hindi interweb. I think it is fantastic that there is Hindi content online, and driving more language content will dramatically expand the relevance of the internet in India. Look at Google, they have the Hindi transliteration tool on Blogger, they take Hindi (and other languages) advertising on AdSense and you talk to lots of people who carry on and on about the languages.
You can argue all sorts of stuff about English being the only unifying langauge and all that sort of stuff, but I also believe that having language editions is a great thing. There is only one problem, language papers don't get too much advertising. Strangely enough the situation is reversed on TV but the internet will propobably go the way of print. Because, the internet's business model is advertsing, advertsing can only be successful if people buy stuff. Preferably online. Credit Card penetration in India is still primarily to a certain set of people. You can see where I'm headed. I also don't believe that this will be the case forever, things are changing, but then again more and more people are speaking English.
I don't know why so many Hindi business dailies have come out so soon, because they are in essence translated versions of the English papers. I don't know if ET and BS were pre-empting TV18's venture into the world of newspapers. I do know for a fact that the two national newsmagazines actually 'de-sell' their Hindi editions so as to not lose money.
To understand the economics of a newspaper or any print publication, I'll do a quick primer again. Your average Times or HT in a city like Delhi will have between 40-50 pages. If you estimate the cost of newsprint, ink and the depreciation of the hugely expensive printing machines cost around 10 paise a page, the average paper costs around Rs4-5 per issue. Factor in costs of fat-cat editors (some who have the undies laundered from five star hotels) , other plebs on the newsroom, peons, print employees and the thousands of litres of sugar juice masquerading as chai, each single paper would cost between Rs8-10. You pay Rs 2.50 at best, the money has to be made up somewhere, which is where the advertising comes in. Now, to those who crib and cry about the quality of editorial and how newspapers are glorified billboards, now you know. Again!
Here is the flip side, say you have a print run of 100,000 copies of a 32-page paper and on average you sell 95,000 copies a day. Your costs are about Rs 10 lakh a day (smaller print runs actually cost more factoring in depreciation), you make back Rs 2,37,500, but because the newspaper vendor gets to keep a buck, you actually make back Rs 1,42,500, and this is assuming that you don't give away 50,000 copies every morning at the domestic terminal. You have to sell Rs 8,57,500 in adverts everyday so as not to make a loss. This means you have to employ really expensive people on your ad-sales team, which adds to costs, but we won't factor that in right now. In an English paper you can make back your money by going to fancy brands with high margins willing to put in ads. Hindi is a rather different thing altogether, many of the brands you go to would rather advertise on TV because they want to reach out to housewives or more consumers and the guys who do advertise are generally low-margin companies.
Now, you could argue that most language content, particularly in Hindi was so poor therefore nobody read them. Hindi papers, whenever I have read them - taxis, trains etc are more conservative on social views (which is why Hindi or language news TV is sometimes so delightfully perverse, the medium has been restrained for so long) and 'socialist' (for lack of another word) in their economic and business views. More Hindi papers leads to diverse set of opinions, which would help, but in this case it is mainly opinions of writers who thought in English being translated into Hindi. I don't think news always translates very well, so therefore you have a desk. And then you realise that there are fewer people left on Hindi print desks than they are in English, because the TV channels is where it is at!
So will these papers survive? Spoilers have seemed to survive for quite a while, particularly from the Times Group, everybody said Mumbai Mirror would have a lifespan of a year, but here it is doing quite well. And you never know, with all this 'Long Tail' blah doing the rounds, if there is actually an expanding market among the bulk of language news readers and not just viewers?
Anyway, these are just my thoughts, if you guys have any let me know. Anyway, I am thinking of approaching a few senior editors as well as reporters whom I know over the next few weeks and asking them to contribute 'signed' articles on this blog on the evolution of the media in the age of the internet. I don't know who I will ask to write, I do have a few ideas. I can't afford to pay anyone but I can always afford to buy people a beer. If you would like to write you know my email address, but remember these will be signed articles.
As always thanks for reading my rants! If you want to read something more substantial, please read this passage from Salman Rushdie's new book The Enchantress of Florence which was printed in The New Yorker. Beautiful piece and with all the noise surrounding a particular movie all the more apt. (Thanks to S!)