Why Indian Publishers Should Be Wary Despite Growing Newspaper Circulation


For years, the Indian newspaper industry has been the envy of the rest of the world. It has grown consistently since India’s economic reforms in 1990, and advertising revenues have occasionally hit double-digit growth rates, while the industry declined steadily in much of the western world.

According to a recent report released by India’s Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), a non-profit organization founded in 1948, newspaper circulation of its 967 member publications grew 60% between 2006 and 2016, reflecting an annual growth rate of 4.9%.

Total daily circulation for these newspapers audited by the ABC reached 62.8 million, meaning on average each newspaper boasted a daily circulation of about 65,000.

Commentators justifiably took pride in the steady growth of print newspapers, and news outlets like CNN reported on how these figures demonstrated the country’s “thriving” print media industry.

However, this positive coverage glosses over a bout of newsroom buyouts, layoffs, and shutdowns in India, notably by the English-language press and including one of the only four listed newspaper companies in the country. Few, if any, have gone beyond the headline numbers and therein lies the proverbial glass half empty.

The bigger picture

For a comprehensive picture of print media in the country, here are some other numbers to consider:

    • Between 2006 and 2016, average daily print circulation of the 967 publications audited by the ABC grew by 23.7 million. In the same period, India’s population grew 160 million, meaning incremental penetration of newspapers was less than 15% despite youth literacy sharply rising to 90%.


    • The combined annual revenues of India’s print industry declined marginally from $13.6 billion in 2013 to $13.4 billion in 2016, according to the German statistical research firm Statista.


  • GroupM estimates print advertising in India will grow by 4.5% in 2017, just above the previous year’s 4%, but barely above the inflation rate of nearly 4%.

The first bullet point indicates that a majority of youth (50% of India’s population is below the age of 25) may not buy into print, and may instead embrace digital news sources. The second suggests a flattening of print revenues, or even a decline in real terms, despite rising circulation.

Lastly, the third suggests near-flat advertising revenues. If these interpretations are right, India’s print industry may have hit a peak and must prepare for the slide, perhaps by embracing digital with a little more enthusiasm.

Blinded by revenue

Historically, newspapers thrived in a monopolistic position–one in which readers and advertisers had few choices. However, the Internet has broken down both walls, as we have known since at least the turn of the century. Yet the ripple effects are just beginning to show themselves in the Indian market.

In fact, the shift to digital could conceivably play out at a faster pace than it did in other countries, notably the US, for several reasons. After all, technology and newsonomics know no boundaries.

By 2020, India’s Internet users are projected to rise 60% to 730 million and smartphone users are expected to more than double to 702 million, according to a joint study by Internet technology firm Akamai and Indian software industry group Nasscom. Such rapid adoption will likely accelerate already changing reading habits.

So far, Indian print publishers, with only a few exceptions, have made only a feeble push into digital. Perhaps this seemed to make business sense because they were making money hand over fist from print, but no longer.

Most newspapers run a token website with an editorial staff that works in isolation from its print counterparts. Consequently, there is little collaboration, experimentation, or innovation in newsrooms or in marketing departments. Most publishers earn less than 10% of their revenue from online, compared to about 25% for American publishers.

Digital startups with a head start

On the other hand, a range of pure digital news media companies has emerged to tap into the fast-growing online readership overlooked by print publishers. These digital startups are also targeting the fast-growing digital advertising market, which is expected to double its share of the advertising pie by claiming 24% in 2020.
Since digital news media does not face restrictions on foreign ownership, it has allowed many global companies to throw their hats into the ring. They include New York-headquartered IBT Media and the venture-funded Scroll.in, based in Boston.
UC Web, the Chinese media company owned by Alibaba, is also in the process of setting up massive news media operations in multiple Indian languages is In addition, the British Broadcasting Corporation is in an advanced stage of adding more languages to its mix of news websites in India. Billionaire Mukesh Ambani-owned Network 18, through its ETV subsidiary, is similarly planning to start news websites in a dozen Indian languages.
Some of the pure digital startups deliver quality news stories with several multimedia elements. One, The Wire, is a nonprofit initiative. However, some are simple aggregators or rewriting shops and already have stolen a march over many print publishers’ digital offerings.
In fact, some rank among the most trafficked news websites in India, according to the web traffic-monitoring firm SimilarWeb. They include IBTimes India and Oneindia, which is venture-funded and publishes in multiple Indian languages.
India’s print publishers still have a lot going for them. They have corporate advertising support (40% vs. low teens in many other countries, according to The Economist), and generous advertising support from the federal and state governments. But they risk losing print audiences as well as digital ones, if they don’t act soon.