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'Print Media Not Ready To Quit The Race Yet'

In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Girish Agarwaal details the expansion plans that Bhaskar Group has earmarked for itself including going all aggressive in Bihar – one of the largest print markets in India

Photo Credit : Umesh Goswami

Call them old school, or simply a stubborn streak, but there is a section of media industry captains who believe that the narrative of a print-past or a digital-future is as misplaced as the Kindle taking over print copies. Dainik Bhaskar, among the largest print groups in India, is putting its money where its mouth is and has set aside an investment of Rs 200 crore to augment its print play which included a massive brand relaunch, entering new markets and increasing its printing facilities.  Girish Agarwaal, Promoter Director, Dainik Bhaskar Group, says, “In the metros, the English newspapers are not growing as much but due to that, it has become fashionable to say that print in India is going the same way that it has in the US. There is a misconception around print and it is only our fault that we have not presented the facts and corrected it.” In this interview with Noor Fathima Warsia, Agarwaal details the expansion plans that Bhaskar Group has earmarked for itself including going all aggressive in Bihar – one of the largest print markets in India. 

Edited Excerpts:

You have set aside Rs 200 crore to be invested in the next two years. What are some of the plans?
We embarked on an aggressive growth plan in June, largely motivated by a talk our late father (Ramesh Chandra Agarwal) gave earlier in the year when he all but said that we had slowed down in our ambition. We knew we had to correct this and we took a call in June to add 10 lakh more copies by June 2018. As Bhaskar, we are in 12 States, and in June, we were at 52 lakh copies.

We began by relaunching the brand in our existing markets and expanding our reach in Bihar. We had launched in Bihar a couple of years ago in limited territories but we now want to grow in 38 districts of the State. In all these markets, we earmarked Rs 100-plus crore capex and we estimate another Rs 100 crore in a wide array of requirements. We are happy to report that in September, we gained 3.5 lakh copies – we have 80,000 copies in Gujarat, in Rajasthan over 1 lakh and Punjab at 30,000 copies. In Bihar, we expected 4 lakh copies that began coming in November, and will continue to come in till March – with this, the internal target will come through.

And it is not just 10 lakh copies. We have to see this from the perspective of the market perception that print is not growing. This is 20 per cent circulation growth on a very high base. More importantly, almost 12 per cent growth is coming from same store sales - only 4 lakh copies, which is 8 per cent is coming from a new market. The fact that we are still growing in markets like Gujarat and Punjab is indicative of the huge potential in these markets.

Was the impact of the increase in cover price and the relaunch as per expectations?
I would say better than expectations. All this growth in circulation came at a higher cover price – we increase from Rs 3.5 to Rs 5. Consumers are willing to pay this because they want to read. There is a huge gap between the penetration of people who can read and who are reading.

With the relaunch, our message was that you are missing out if you are not reading a newspaper. True, there is social media but in most instances, that is opinion and even fake news. Social media explained the cabinet reshuffle but newspapers reported the nuances. And we have spent a lot on technology and infrastructure as well. We increased our print infrastructure country wide. Our goal was that we should have a printing press in every 125 km radius. So even if there is news breaking at 2 a.m., we can cover it in colour.

We already have 70 printing locations and we are adding another five more. Bihar will have five printing locations with 12 print setups. We have perhaps one of the largest door-to-door people contact programme to drive our circulation and we are going back to it. In Bihar alone, we have connected with more than 15-16 lakh people.

Do you not think that with the advent of Digital India and similar initiatives, digital media is set to only grow more in India in comparison to other media?

Digital will grow, as it has been growing, and data will be available even in smaller towns but you must understand what all this really translates into. On an average, a reader spends 30 minutes in the morning to read a newspaper. Certain homemakers still read in the afternoons but it is largely a morning habit. If, as a newspaper, we have not answered the question of how we are making our readers more knowledgeable, we have our work cut out. A large part of news is already known and I even credit WhatsApp groups to play that role. Newspapers will need to give the additional detail. Our philosophy is ‘Kendra mein Pathak’ or reader at the core. Is my reader asking this question? Everything is reader driven, and this is true for our print and digital avatars.

 As an industry we are quick in jumping to a decision, what next. One has to understand, in India, the penetration level is still very low in each industry, including print.

And in regards to data availability, what do you think people are watching -- news channels or YouTube? It all depends on what the newspaper is offering. Unfortunately  the newspaper industry, those who give out news to people, missed out on looking at their own industry from that perspective. We allowed the very wrong perception that print was slowing down, when it is growing.

We have read several reports from Dainik Bhaskar Group on how your digital platform is growing. Are those numbers not encouraging you enough to invest more in digital?
Our digital platform is massive and growing but that is a separate vehicle, which will continue to grow; that does not mean print will suffer. They are both growing. Content synergies are already in play between the two and on the rest, it will happen when both areas are strong enough. As a reader, when you read a story in the morning, you expect to be updated throughout the day. Even right now, shorter updates work on digital – why do you think we are hearing of six-second ads and three-second ads. That is the mindset.  Print is meal and digital is snacking.

You have mentioned that English print is not growing – why do you think that is the case?
English is not growing for two reasons. First, English is limited to metros and the population of these markets is growing but not so much of the affluent, English-reading audience. The topline of newspapers is not growing since advertisers are already overspending in metros. They account for 30 per cent of sales but 50 per cent of advertising budget, so it has to come down. TV is again metro-focussed. There is around 70 per cent market that has to be taken care of, that is growing faster than the metros, so spending will come down further.

And what about the challenges ahead for you?
For us, it is two-fold - how will we continue increasing penetration in the market. And what do we do to grow after achieving the 10 lakh target. For that, we have to create more editorial offerings for our readers to keep them engaged.

The industry wide challenge is around the global economy that we see has tapered down and has impacted advertising growth. Some of it is demonetisation and GST led but these are short-term and the likes of the latter will have a good impact on the economy in the longer run.