Ifra India: Taking stock of what it's all about

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There's a slightly haunted look around the stands at WAN-Ifra's India Conference this year: If visitors from other world markets perceive an ongoing charmed life, local vendors don't see it like that.

Manfred Werfel, the organiser's deputy chief executive says print newspapers are also growing in southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and China, and stable in Thailand; UK paper consultant Gary Thomson disagrees, arguing that India is the only market in growth.

Whoever is right, exchange rates and higher newsprint prices have made things tougher for publishers even though the full impact of competition from the Google-Facebook duopoly - and new number three Amazon - has yet to arrive.

And there's the conundrum. Aware of the need to push up audience revenue, whether it's print or online, publishers are getting back to the basics of what they are about.

In a panel discussion on the first day, editors Mukund Padmanabhan (The Hindu) and Shriram Pawar (Sakal Media), Jagran Prakashan executive president Sandeep Gupta, HT Media operations director Sharad Saxena and chairman KN Shanth Kumar - who is a director of The Printers (Mysore) - agree that India's flawed distribution model is a problem.

The morning ritual of reading a print newspaper is under threat, not just because of smartphones, but through later delivery times; money spent on high speed presses and production efficiencies doesn't ensure a paper before dawn if bundles from individual publishers wait until those from the tardiest arrive.

Later Times of India group deputy technical director Shasank Chaven admitted that while internal deadlines have been controlled and even improved under their Project Sunrise, what happens afterwards - the "last mile" - could be chaotic.

And inevitably, there's debate about editorial priorities: Whether readers should be given the journalism - and kittens and scantily clad young women - they want, or that which editors believe they should have.

There's a strong public service tradition among editors in India's relatively-young market in favour of the latter. Padmanabhan argues for delivering the latest news: "We sometimes neglect the basic idea," he says, arguing that editors and publishers "should not be distracted by getting the latest ad".

Gupta says the problems which come with late news and print "issues" need to be incorporated. Pressures from other sections of the business are an issue, but it's not about making life easier for individual departments. "Every link needs to be clear what the goal is," says Saxena.

Padmanabhan says that while there's "a common criticism' that newspapers are not aware of their readers, the bigger question is how far editors "go down the popular route", and to what extent the focus on what they stand for and "what's important".

Is it worth the bother? After a life in print, 68-year-old Mahfuz Anam of the Bangladesh Daily Star told another World Editors' Forum session he expects print to be dead before he is, and sees no further justification for its "habit", now digital gives readers and publishers "so much more" with reduced costs, endless space, delivery choices and instant interaction.

But the death of newspapers does not have to "mean the death of journalism," he says.

Not that digital is without pitfalls, US consultant and and former Morris Communications executive Steve Yelvington - who had led a workshop the previous day - warning publishers to "be careful about the stories you tell yourself about how well you are doing (in digital)".

It's unlikely Mukund Padmanabhan would agree that, like Facebook, we should have an algorithm that decides which stories should be given priority and preference, but that's exactly what Fredric Karen, chief executive and editor-in-chief of Sweden's Svenska Dagblad, is arguing later, explaining the reasons behind their investment in technology which also delivers automated rewrites of other publishers' content. A sort of plagiarism bot, perhaps?

There's also a whiff of "give them what's good for us" about a Danish print market in which publishers - through a buying consortium - have decided that newspapers will switch to lightweight 40 gsm newsprint, despite handling and appearance difficulties.

Are the savings - which DDPFF managing director Thomas Isaksen says could amount to 800,000 Euros a year for a typical newspaper - worth it? Not unreasonably, Malayala Manorama marketing, advertising and sales vice president Varghese Chandy saw it - and especially the implicit show-through - as an unwanted objection in newspapers' fight against other ad media. Perhaps his presentation in the middle of a World Printers Froum session, was a necessary reality check.

Established in 1888 and now with an unprecedented 92 per cent reach across multiple channels, the Kerala publisher "didn't just wake up one morning like that", having worked hard for its editorial leadership and 9.4 million readers.

That Kerala is India's only fully-literate state would have helped; August's devastating floods obviously did not, stalling economic activity ahead of an important festival. Chandy says Manorama's approach has been to work with partners and other media to create a new festival, "as soon as possible" to get things moving again.

Lower prices, and what Innovation's Juan Senor called the "original sin" of believing that "free today will pay off tomorrow" are another issue for Indian media companies. He delivered a list of 11 revenue options, urging that publishers should adopt at least three, "but not all". Some, like e-commerce and charging for access to content are basic; others - including Forbes' success of licensing its brand - less so. Some, like barter, bitcoin and cashing in on the interest from holding clients' money sounded as if they might threaten all-important reputation.

Senor also pointed to the success of some publishers - notably the Washington Post with Arc and its owners Amazon Web Services, without which he said the e-commerce giant might not make a profit. Perhaps Fredric Karen's employer Schibsted will make the algorithm staff call The Oracle - and can be changed without the newsroom "having to know" - available commercially.

Clearly however, there are those who will question whether that might be journalism's saviour or its death knell.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: KN Shanth Kumar, Sandeep Gupta, Sharad Saxena, Shriram Pawar and Mukund Padmanabhan discussed the bridging of the gap between between editorial, technical and business functions, but not all agreed that it should be bridged

On our homepage: Fredric Karen

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